Photo Courtesy Erik Anderson
Ricky Skaggs is still out there, as Chet Atkins famously declared, “saving” country music. The bluegrass icon’s recent autobiography, Kentucky Traveler, delves into all of the Skaggsian legends — yes, he played with Bill Monroe when he was 5, and with Flatt & Scruggs when he was 7. His latest disc, Hearts Like Ours, finds him reviving classic country harmonies with his wife, Sharon White. But keeping it real doesn’t mean this 60-year-old traditionalist – a multiple Grammy winner — can’t have some fun outside of his comfort zone; he’s collaborated with everyone from Bruce Hornsby to Jack White to Barry Gibb, even Phish, in recent years. Skaggs and his band, Kentucky Thunder, will storm the new Dinwiddie Music Fest at Virginia Motorsports Park on June 5 alongside a bevy of bluegrass and Americana performers, and later this year, he and Sharon will tour with another revered instrumentalist, a guy Skaggs has always wanted to swap licks with: Ry Cooder. ”Keep on trucking,” is the philosophy, he says. “We’re happy to still keep doing what we’re doing.”
RM: You started out on the mandolin at a very young age. Do you still love the instrument?
Skaggs: When I pick it up, there’s still stuff to discover. Music is such an emotional thing, a spiritual thing for me. When I get around a guitar, mandolin, fiddle, it’s all about how I’m feeling. Technique and practice certainly pay off, but it’s all about pressing into it and finding where your heart is.
RM: Was it tough to write your life story in Kentucky Traveler?
Skaggs: The book is as accurate as I could make it. I had final approval, and HarperCollins was great to give me the time I needed. I had a cowriter, Eddie Dean. He had co-written Ralph Stanley’s book. I was hoping for the same thing that he had done with Ralph — he found his voice. It was like Ralph was sitting there telling me the story. That’s what I wanted. And we didn’t get that at first, honestly. It took three or four months to really find a rhythm, to find my voice. And then the editors edited out a lot. You see, when someone asks me what time it is, I tend to tell ’em how to build a watch (laughs).
RM: You’ve been upfront about your Christianity. Is it difficult being a religious person in the music business?
Skaggs: It is no more difficult than if I worked at a newspaper. Life is filled with temptations. You have to listen to the right voice. People say, “You hear voices?” I say, “Yeah, I hear an inner voice.” If I didn’t have a relationship with the spirit of God, I wouldn’t know where to go. And I don’t want to do just what seems right, I want to do what is right. Reading the Bible and knowing truth is a part of what keeps me grounded, but it also keeps me inspired and keeps me musically challenged.
RM: I think of you as the consummate collaborator — you’ve worked with everyone from Emmylou Harris to Phish to Barry Gibb. What’s the secret?
Skaggs: The secret is always putting that person above yourself. That’s just honoring them. You kind of have to go under someone to lift them up. I want to help that person sound as good as he can sound. I want to be a team player and a good band leader. Like with Kentucky Thunder. I always give them a place onstage to shine. It’s not just a one-man band.
RM: How was it to work with Sharon on Hearts Like Ours?
Skaggs: It’s one of the most pleasurable things we’ve ever done. You would think that doing a musical [project] with your wife would be a difficult challenge … like building a house together. But she has a way of listening to the songs, and really getting into the lyrics, finding out what the songs mean. Me, I’m a little more focused on the arrangements, what mics we’re using, stuff like that. So we worked well together.
RM: You have your own label, Skaggs Family. How does that affect what you do?
Skaggs: Even with your own label, it’s still hard. you’ve got to stay at it, stay focused every day, find ways to promote the music because the costs of advertising on radio and TV is so prohibitive. Still, with the Internet and Facebook and the social side, we can get to more people than we ever could. It’s a double-edged sword. But I’m glad that I have my own label where I can record what I want to when I want.
RM: Your collaboration with Bruce Hornsby a few years ago was memorable. What was that like?
Skaggs: We talked a few years ago about an idea he had to do some old country songs. When we were on tour together, we’d break down out of a hot bluegrass tune and go into an old George Jones song — (sings) “The bottle on the table …” and the crowd just ate it up. He’s a master of that. I love working with Bruce. It’s a joy unspeakable. I feel like my feet aren’t even on the stage.