Today is Ricky Skaggs’ 65th birthday, and while he’s years away from being declared the Grand Old Man of Bluegrass (the substantially older Osborne Brothers, Del McCoury and Jesse McReynolds still walk among us), Skaggs, with his avuncular smile and mane of snow-white hair, is unquestionably a revered member of the genre’s Council of Elders.
But let’s flash back 38 years to when Skaggs was making his first confident steps in a new direction.
You had to be living in Nashville back then to fully understand the excitement Skaggs brought to country music, beginning with the release in May 1981 of his first major label album, Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine.
At the time, country was still in the throes of the western-tinged Urban Cowboy movie, which, while a welcome shot of publicity for the format, also gave rise to some incredibly shallow songs. On the plus side, Alabama — the group — was avalanching into its own with a rock beat, creamy vocal harmonies and irresistible lyrics and melodies.
Skaggs’ music partook of neither of these influences. His up-front nasalized vocals, largely acoustic instrumentation and jazzed up versions of bluegrass and country standards blew through like nothing else on country radio. It stood apart from bluegrass chiefly because it included drums and piano and because there was no domineering banjo, no overlong fiddling and no weak “little darlin’” lyrics. As his own producer — a rarity back then — Skaggs knew precisely what he wanted.
Although those of us who were into bluegrass were familiar with Skaggs — I had seen him play with the Country Gentlemen in the early ‘70s — he was a new name and sound to regular country fans. But he wasn’t long in catching on.
At the CMA Awards show in October 1981, a friend and I found ourselves seated directly beside Skaggs and his wife, Sharon White, in the balcony of the Grand Ole Opry House. That we were in the balcony and not downstairs showed our relative importance in the scheme of things.
My friend, also a Skaggs fan, paged through the printed program until she came to the category that listed the nominees for male vocalist of the year. She penciled in Skaggs’ name and showed it to him. He laughed uneasily and returned his gaze to the stage.
But my friend was prescient. The next year, the CMA did award Skaggs the male vocalist prize. By this time, he’d scored three No. 1 singles — “Crying My Heart Out Over You,” a Flatt & Scruggs cover; “I Don’t Care” a Webb Pierce cover; and “Heartbroke,” a Guy Clark song from Skaggs’ second album, Highways & Heartaches.
Eight more No. 1 and six Top 10 country songs lay ahead. One of these — “Country Boy” in 1985, the year Skaggs was voted CMA’s Entertainer of the Year — was accompanied by a music video of historic importance because of all the bases it covered.
In 1984, Skaggs had a No. 1 with “Uncle Pen,” a Bill Monroe classic which Monroe had written to honor the uncle who musically inspired him. The “Country Boy” video was shot in New York City, and here was the plot: Skaggs’ “Uncle Pen,” played by a severe-looking Monroe, comes to New York to chastise his nephew (Skaggs) for “getting way above his raising” and turning from a rural lad into a tailored-suited city slicker.
Skaggs picks up his guitar and commences playing to demonstrate he’s still “a country boy at heart.” It gets crazy from there. Skaggs, still dressed like a toff, and his uncle roam the streets of New York. At one point, a cabbie looks up and mouths the words of the song. Of course, it isn’t a real cabbie, it’s the then-mayor of New York, Ed Koch. Monroe rides the subway and gets into a cultural (and financial) exchange with a throng of break dancers. Broadway dancer Charlotte d’Amboise make an appearance, as does actor David Keith.
It was a complete mini-movie that touched on everything from the supposed conflict between country and bluegrass to the importance of Monroe as the father of bluegrass and the arbiter of what kind of music can and can’t legitimately bear that name. Most of all it was fun.
In the early 2000s, Skaggs made a triumphant return to bluegrass with his dazzling band, Kentucky Thunder. But he’s had a lasting impact on traditional country music, a fact made emphatic when, in 2018, he was welcomed into the Country Music Hall of Fame.