Bluegrass and country music legend Ricky Skaggs has done it all. He’s played with virtually everyone you could ever think of and had the kind of opportunities in his career that most people would only dream of.
When you talk to Skaggs, you realize that he doesn’t take any of that for granted. He knows how lucky he is to do what he does, and he’s still as energized by his career as he was when he started.
Skaggs has collaborated with too many artists to mention, and in recent years many of those artists are people who fall outside of the realm of country and bluegrass. Take his partnership with Bruce Hornsby for example, or his pairing with Jack White’s Raconteurs. It’s a testament to just how talented and versatile he is.
Ahead of his appearance at the Lucas Theatre on April 9, for Savannah Music Festival, we spoke to Skaggs about his incredible life in music.
Tell me a bit about how you started in music, and when you realized it was what you wanted to do with your life.
Skaggs: I had no idea what lay ahead. I was singing around the house with my mom and dad. She’d be in the kitchen or doing work around the house, and she was always singing. I’d hear her sing with my dad when he was home. He was a welder, so most of the time he was traveling to get good jobs for maybe a month or two.
They sang together in church and at home, so I just naturally picked up her part when she’d sing with my dad. So when she’d be singing, I’d sing along. I guess my mom told my dad, “He’s singing.” She told on me [laughs]. Dad just thought that I needed to start playing something, so he was up in Ohio and drove in from work one morning and stuck a mandolin in my bed.
I woke up, and there it was. I put my hand around it and started plucking the strings, and loved the sound immediately. I’d never put my hands on an instrument before. When I heard the sound of that mandolin, it just did something. It made my heart really, really sing. Dad showed me three chords - G, C, and D. When he would come home, I’d be playing and singing, and changing keys. It really got him excited.
He had loaned the family guitar out to a friend of ours, so we didn’t even have a guitar at the house for a time. So he went to Ashland, Kentucky, and bought this ‘59 Martin guitar. So we started playing and singing every weekend that he’d come home. That was the early beginnings. The fiddle came after that, and then the banjo came after that.
When I started playing mandolin, we’d be listening to the radio and he’d point out, “That’s Bill Monroe! He’s the king.” So I associated him with being this bigger-than-life person.
It seems like everyone has that moment where they realize they’ve made it to a certain level where maybe there’s a real career path in front of them. What was that moment for you?
Skaggs: Well, it was a hard thing for me. My dad had gotten me on Flatt & Scruggs’ television show - he was the one that got me in front of Earl Scruggs. So my dad was my agent, and I got to play with Bill Monroe when I was 6 years old, and played with Flatt & Scruggs when I was 7. I’d played with the Stanley Brothers when I was about 8 or 9 years old. They came to eastern Kentucky, real close to where I live.
We got backstage and my dad met Carter and Ralph, and Carter said, “Man, well, we’ll put him on tonight.” So he was happy to do that. Then they invited me up the next night, so we’d become acquainted with the Stanley Brothers a bit. When I was late 14, early 15, me and Keith Whitley met. We just started talking, and then singing together after about 10 minutes of meeting each other.
Later on we went to see Ralph Stanley, and he was so excited that we were there and asked us to play with him. I said, “Dad, Ralph wants us to play with him.” And so, we went back to the car to get our instruments and my dad reached for his guitar. I said, “Dad, Ralph just wants me and Keith.” I remember the look on my dad’s face. He just put his guitar back in the car and said, “Okay.”
It was that cutting away, the detachment from my dad, who was my best friend and my teacher. It was hard. It was not like we were never going to play together again, but I knew that in my dad’s heart it was everything that he’d wanted for me.
To be able to do this on your own?
Skaggs: Yeah! That’s what any good father wants for his kids. He wants his kids to go farther than he’s gone. So that was one time that I knew that I was going into a place where I could learn from other sources.
You’ve played with a lot of different people and have collaborated in a lot of genres - The Raconteurs, Bruce Hornsby, Barry Gibb, and Phish, to name a few. What are some of the biggest takeaways you’ve had from those experiences? Does crossing genres like that enhance the way you approach your instruments?
Skaggs: There’s always the fear of the unknown. I never felt comfortable saying I could play with anybody. But getting to play with Bruce stretched me in a good way. I mean, it wasn’t like Bruce wanted me to come into his sandbox. He wanted to come into ours. He wanted to bring his piano playing and singing into our environment.
The Raconteurs collaboration was kind of a surprise, but Jack couldn’t have been nicer. He treated me with such respect. Now, I hear they’re cutting a new record but I haven’t gotten a call yet. What’s up with that? Was it something I said? [laughs].
If you’ll notice, in my timeline, it was after I had left country music and started playing bluegrass again in ‘96 or ‘97 that these collaborations started to emerge. So I think that just the little old mandolin and the ability to play it with different people has opened up doors.
Had I stayed in country music, I don’t think I would’ve been offered the same collaboration-type invitations. I think it’s the intrigue [from other artists]. It’s the small things that confound the wise.