Ricky Skaggs still remembers his first trip to the Grand Ole Opry. Though only a child at the time, he can recall the smells and sounds of the century-old Ryman Auditorium that housed (and still does on a regular basis) the world-famous radio show that began in the 1920s. In fact, one of his most noteworthy memories summons visions of the eye-catching sequined suits worn by Ernest Tubb, Faron Young, Little Jimmy Dickens and Porter Wagoner.
“Porter Waggoner had kind of a yellow suit with this big wagon wheel on the back,” he said, making a large circle with his hands. “And the girls would come out with all these bright colored dresses. Just as a kid, it seemed like the colors were so much brighter than it is now.”
For his latest album, Music to My Ears, Skaggs manages to intertwine many of these sounds he grew up hearing and playing, including country, bluegrass and gospel. He also pays homage to a few musical icons and also sprinkles in a dash of harmonious humor along the way.
“I just look back and see all that I’ve done and all that I continue wanting to do musically,” Skaggs told CMT.com during a recent interview. “I’m 58 and just came out with a new record, and I feel really, really good about the record and my performance on it.”
This past May, the mandolin player extraordinaire — who at 16 got his start playing alongside Keith Whitley in Ralph Stanley‘s band — celebrated 30 years as an Opry member. His anniversary celebration included fellow members like Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and several others.
Over the course of the last three decades, the multiple Grammy winner has collected numerous industry accolades ranging from award show honors to his most recent induction into the Gospel Hall of Fame as well as the Pioneer Award from the Academy of Country Music.
“I love music,” he noted. “I just think more now than I probably ever have because it’s a pure love. It’s not a ‘have-to’ kind of love.”
Skaggs is referring to a period in his life when he felt the pressures to continually perform and promote his music, inevitably sacrificing family time for fame.
“It was all about me,” he said. “It was all about my career. It was all about what I could do in the country music business. It was all me, me, me, me. It’s just not that way anymore, and I don’t ever want it to go back to that. I don’t ever want it to be about me anymore. I’m so free from that stuff and would never go back. That’s when a career has you. It has you right around the neck.
“But I’m so glad I’ve been able to do what I’ve done and be able to step [away] from it and look at it and be grateful for it but also have learned the lessons from it, too.”
For his latest project, Skaggs teamed up with former Bee Gees member Barry Gibb on the haunting tune, “Soldier’s Son.” Written by Gibb and two of his sons Ashley and Stephen, the track showcases the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s distinctive falsetto while at the same time leaving room for Skaggs’ musical thumbprint.
“Just trying to mesh the two things together to where it sounded like Ricky and Barry — instead of just Barry on a Ricky record or vice versa,” Skaggs said of the process. “I think the way it came out, it really paid tribute to his love in music as well and things that he likes.”
Knowing Gibb used to watch the black-and-white televised Opry shows as a child in Australia, Skaggs asked him to join him on that very stage this past summer to perform their collaboration.
“I thought he was going to have a heart attack,” he said of his friend’s reaction. “He just was so so excited. There was just this silence on the other end of the phone. He said, ‘I dreamed of it all my life. I dreamed of standing behind that microphone with WSM on it and Grand Ole Opry.’”
Skaggs also noted how unfortunate it is that some of today’s Opry members seem to have outgrown the celebrated show.
“Like they’re just too big for the Opry,” he detailed. “Ain’t nobody bigger than Barry Gibb. And yet that was a humbling thing for him and a milestone in his life to come and do that.”
Music to My Ears pays tribute to a few musical legends, including the late guitar great Doc Watson in the galloping classic, “Tennessee Stud.” Plus, he shows regard for his own musical mentor and Father of Bluegrass — Bill Monroe — in the tongue-and-cheek tune, “You Can’t Hurt Ham,” penned by Skaggs and co-producer Gordon Kennedy.
But despite the amusing number, Skaggs’ mandolin is a serious constant throughout his latest project. From the album’s opener of “Blue Night” to the quick-paced picking of Skaggs and his band, Kentucky Thunder, in songs like “Things in Life” and “Loving You Too Well,” together these collective tracks demonstrate their tight arrangements, harmonies and overall showmanship.
Most notably in “New Jerusalem,” Skaggs believes the instrumental incorporates elements of Monroe’s celebrated project, “Jerusalem Ridge.”
In fact, he still remembers the first time he joined Monroe onstage as a child at a high school gymnasium in Martha, Ky. After a few members of the audience shouted to Monroe to let “Little Ricky” play with him, Monroe finally gave in and called him to the stage.
“So, he just reaches down and grabs me by the arm and pulls me up and sets me up on the stage like a sack of potatoes,” he recalled. He then described how Monroe took off his own mandolin and placed it around Skaggs’ small frame.
“It was the size of a guitar compared to my little body at 6 years old,” he chuckled.
It would be another 10 years before Skaggs had the chance to see Monroe and remind him of that monumental time in his life.
Reflecting back on those memories and music lovingly, Skaggs also places a great importance on his close relationship with God, ever present in the album’s namesake, “Music to My Ears” where he repeats the refrain, “The name of the Lord is music to his ears.”
“God has enough grace for me today, and He will have enough grace for me tomorrow,” said Skaggs of his unwavering faith. “For whatever I mess up, for whatever I do, whatever I say that was wrong. I just run to him and know that there’s so much safety and security there.”
Excited and proud of his latest album, he no longer concerns himself with song chart placement like he did earlier in his career. In fact, he said since the late ’90s, he’s been able to record the music closest to his heart with a blatant freedom he hadn’t felt before.
“I don’t have to worry if I’m gonna have a hit record,” he explained. “Chances are I’m not, so I don’t even connect to that anymore. I used to be so worried about that kind of stuff. Even though I feel like I made great records back then, the difference between then and this is just so freeing.
“It’s like you take a big load off your chest,” he said with a smile. “It feels like I can breathe.”