In the early 1980s, Ricky Skaggs revitalized country music with a series of albums that blended his love of bluegrass with a knack for finding memorable material that appealed to country audiences. Over the course of the decade, the Kentucky native notched 11 No. 1 hits before returning to bluegrass music fulltime.
Now he has licensed his albums from Epic Records for re-release on his own label, Skaggs Family Records. The first offering is 1982’s Highways and Heartaches, with the rest of the catalog to follow in the coming months. In this interview, Skaggs talks about adjusting a few lyrics in two of his most famous songs, scribbling out his record deal on a napkin and the musical direction he’s taking next.
What do you remember about the first time you heard “Heartbroke” ?
I always loved the song. I just knew I couldn’t sing the words in the second verse: “Pride is a b-i-t-c-h.” I had to change the lyrics a little bit because I knew that was not going to fly on country radio. It just wasn’t going to do it. I don’t care how cool you think that is, to put that kind of stuff in your lyrics, it just ain’t cool for mom and dad and the kids driving in the car listening to country music. So I changed it and I’m sure Guy [Clark, who wrote the song] is glad that I changed it. It made him a lot of money. You always hate to take the liberty of changing somebody’s lyrics like that. It’s very sacred, but for the best of everybody and to make it work out, I felt I had to do it in order to get it played. You can’t do two versions and be true to yourself and be honest about it.
Same way with “Highway 40 Blues.” [Songwriter] Larry Cordle had at the end of the second verse: “My eyes are filled with bitter tears/Lord, I could use an ice cold beer.” That was the original lyric, and I had to change that to: “I ain’t been home in years.” Here again, I wouldn’t record a song that I wouldn’t sit down and sing in front of my mom and dad. That’s the way I’ve always been with those kind of lyrics, so I just said I can’t do it [that way], but here again, it all worked out.
I’m surprised that you got the liberty to produce Highways and Heartaches so early in your career.
It really was strange because I had some rough mixes of an album that ended up being the third Epic record, which was Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown. I had “Honey (Open That Door),” “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown,” “She’s More to Be Pitied” and “I’m Head Over Heels in Love.” I had those four songs mixed — kind of rough but mixed anyway — and that’s what I played for Rick Blackburn [the head of Epic Records in Nashville]. … He said “Are you hungry?” and I said, “Well, sure, I can always eat,” and we went to a place called Ireland’s, which used to have steak and biscuits. We went over there and wrote a recording contract — basically, deal points on a napkin — that afternoon. He immediately signed me. That’s how quick that it happened. It was like such destiny for me to be on that label, I guess. That really happened that quickly.
But that was one of the deal points that I really stood firm on with Rick. He asked me, “Who produced this stuff?” and I said, “Well, I did,” and I said, “As a matter of fact, for me and my heart, that would be a deal-breaker [to use an outside producer].” I didn’t have any clout to be saying that, but I said, “If you like what you hear, I believe that I can give you something different enough than what Nashville produces and what Nashville does. If you like it, then let’s put it out. If it doesn’t hit, we don’t get any airplay, we don’t get any hit records, then I’m willing to take a producer or co-producer, however you want me to do it. But at least let’s try this.” He liked the chance-taking that I was willing to do. I was young and stupid, and it worked out great.
What’s next for you, musically?
When I won the Grammy for Honoring the Fathers this year, I feel like I had put a period at the end of a chapter. It was like, “OK, job well done.” We’ve honored not just Mr. Monroe but we’ve honored the fathers of bluegrass — Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise and Howard Watts — the five men that really had the seed of music in them. They planted their seeds in this fertile ground of country music, and it grew and it’s still producing fruit all these years later. I feel like I have done what I promised Mr. Monroe I would do. I feel like I have fulfilled above what I had claimed to do and what I had wanted to do.
I don’t think that means that I’m never going to record bluegrass again … but I think in this climate and … in my heart, I want to do music that I love for the rest of my life. I don’t think I’m going back out and being a country music artist again and try to run up and down the charts. That’s not where my heart is. That’s not where my head is. But I would love to do more music than just acoustic bluegrass music — not that I’m tired of it. I absolutely adore it. I always will love it. It’s always been in my heart. But I also don’t want to be fenced in with acoustic banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar and all that. I feel like there’s more in my heart than just that.