Ricky Skaggs

May 29, 2009

Though known worldwide as a country-music superstar, in recent years, Ricky Skaggs has been returning to his musical roots: bluegrass. Not only has he returned to his musical roots, but he has made it his mission to further bluegrass music by creating his own record label to service his music and that of other artists. He has single-handedly championed the cause and has been recognized for doing so. Since 1998, Ricky Skaggs has collected an amazing 8 Grammy™ Awards and 11 International Bluegrass Music Awards with his group Kentucky Thunder. Salt of the Earth, his most recent album, garnered the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album of the Year.

Ricky Skaggs is a long-time favorite guest on A Prairie Home Companion. On his most recent appearance, he sang 5 of the tracks featured on Salt of the Earth along with the group The Whites. In honor of the 35th Anniversary of A Prairie Home Companion, we pulled from the archives a wonderful sit down interview with Ricky Skaggs that resonates as well today as it did in 1997. Ricky Skaggs was gracious enough to answer a few new questions....

How did you get your start in music and who were your biggest influences?

I started out playing the mandolin when I was 5. My father bought me a mandolin, and I grew up listening to the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, and Bill Monroe—they were kind of my heroes. So I did study the classics. I got to play with Bill Monroe when I was 6 years old, and got to play with Flatt and Scruggs when I was 7. I met Ralph Stanley when I was 9. So I was ruined after that. Those guys influenced me so strong and so deeply that my music really took roots in those early days — so roots music has always been strong in my life.

In your experiences, what would you say is the major difference between recording for a major country label versus a self-published or independent bluegrass label?

When I was on the major labels, there was always this stress. There was no stress for the first record because I didn't have any idea what I was doing. There were really no goals other than to make a great record. But from the second album on, we had to start making hit records because we had already had some from the first one — there was a lot of pressure there to continue having hit records. So once we did that — later on — I would wake up and I would think, Well, I wonder if George Strait is gonna jump me this week. Or, I'd wonder if Dolly or Kenny Rogers was gonna knock me outta the #1 spot this week. There were always those things, and so you would second-guess yourself going into the studio — or at least I would anyway. Now, recording for my own label, there's so much freedom to go in and record what's in my heart. I never ever consider anymore whether the radio is going to play it or not, because radio has never really dictated what's cool and what's not cool about bluegrass music the way it does with country.

A lot of new attention is being paid to the father of bluegrass. What's your opinion on the importance of Bill Monroe to bluegrass music in general?

He was so influential; I think he's probably the only musician that had a whole style of music named after his band, and what he was doing. Bill Monroe influenced everyone from the Everly Brothers to the Beatles to Buck Owens, George Jones, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. Elvis's first hit was Blue Moon of Kentucky. And Terry Stewart, from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, cites Bill Monroe as being the major influence behind rockabilly music.

Can you tell us a bit about the Big Mon CD? How did it come about, and how were the guest performers chosen?

Well this album is something I've wanted to do for a long time. Even before Bill Monroe passed away I wanted to do a tribute to him. Then after he did pass away, we were up at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame for his induction and I met a lot of rock 'n' rollers that really loved Bill Monroe. They cam up and were talking about how much his music really influenced them. So I got to thinking — I've gotta do this record, it's gotta be done. To me, the whole purpose of the album was to show how Monroe's music influenced a whole generation and a whole culture of music. And he really did. I think on a hand of five fingers, he is definitely a thumb if you were counting people of the last century who really influenced American music.

Sally Jo

You have appeared on A Prairie Home Companion as a featured guest many times over the past years. Do you have any favorite memories from your guest performances or of the show? Are there any favorite guest performances that you recall hearing that stand out?

I always love the letters from Lake Wobegon. It's like getting letters from Cordell, KY, my hometown. You guys always have great guests, and I really love hearing the band rip. They're great!

Tell us a bit about the Grammy Award-winning album Salt of the Earth? How did the album come about?

I've known the Whites since 1972. They are some of the first friends I made when I was traveling with Ralph Stanley. Sharon and I got married in 1981. I was having quite a bit of success producing my own records for Epic, so The Whites asked if I would consider producing their records, which was an easy answer. They were already singing on a lot of my country hits, "I Wouldn't Change You If I Could", "Honey Open That Door" and Buck was playing piano on quite a few of my hits, so it was a perfect fit for me to be involved in their production. So as the years passed by, we realized we hadn't really done a project just the two of us, so we got some great old gospel songs together that we had both wanted to do, and that was the birth of Salt Of The Earth.

Listen to "Blessed Assurance"

Bluegrass Breakdown

How did you go about choosing the songs on the album? Do any of the songs have a personal story or meaning behind them?

Songs like "Blessed Assurance" and "The Solid Rock" we're personal favorites of both Sharon's mother Patty and my mother Dorothy, who've both passed away, so we thought it would be a great way to honor their memory.

How was it working with your wife's group The Whites, who are incredible — I had the pleasure of catching them on A Prairie Home Companion, but also as part of the O Brother/Cold Mountain bluegrass tour...

The Whites are just the very best people in the world. I'm thankful to be in their family. They're not just great people but they are so talented too. I love their work on "O Brother" as well.

How can fans keep in contact with your touring schedule/appearances; or that of other artists on Skaggs Family Records?

Fans can keep up with me at www.rickyskaggs.com as well as www.skaggsfamilyrecords.com. News, tour dates and information on the Whites and Cherryholmes can also be found at www.skaggsfamilyrecords.com.

(from Skaggs Family Records)

Songs My Dad Loved
Ricky's been working on a solo project of songs that he's always loved, songs his father loved, etc. He is the only musician on the project — he plays every instrument and sings every vocal — so, this project is 100% Ricky Skaggs. Songs My Dad Loved is available now.

More upcoming projects:
We're also very excited about a series of Ricky's country albums (9 total) reissued through Skaggs Family Records. We're calling it the “Reissue Series”. We just released Highways & Heartaches and are looking forward to releasing Waitin' for the Sun to Shine June 9th. The next in the series is Don't Cheat in Our Hometown, which will be the last one in the series to be released this year. With each release, we're including a bonus retrospective, which feature Ricky, in his own words, reminiscing about the making of that particular album. (Highways & Heartaches includes an audio retrospective CD, the rest include DVD retrospectives.)

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

Available now»

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