Interview: Ricky Skaggs Talks Bluegrass and Traditionalism in Country Music

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For those with only a passing relationship with Ricky Skaggs, he might be best known for singing “I’m just a country boy at heart.” But those who choose to dig a little deeper know Skaggs has been one of the standard bearers in keeping bluegrass music alive and well for going on six decades. The GRAMMY-winning and platinum-certified legend stopped by the Radio.com offices for a lengthy interview about his roots and the music he grew up playing.

In the story of Ricky Skaggs, there seem to be three recurring characters: God, Bill Monroe and a mandolin (not necessarily in that order). The latter, as the instrument he started playing as a young child at his father’s urging.

“When I was five years old, my dad bought me a mandolin and stuck it in my bed. I woke up this little mandolin about this big,” Skaggs recalled, gesturing with his hands. “A lot of kids carry around a little blanket as their fun thing to hold on to. That mandolin became my blankie.”

As a child prodigy, Skaggs played a surprising show with Bill Monroe when the bluegrass legend asked him on stage at age six. In a story he recounts from his memoirs, Kentucky Traveler: My Life In Music, Skaggs details going to see Monroe in Martha, KY with his family and ending up on stage as the request of his neighbors in the audience.

“He invited me up on stage. Of course, I don’t think he knew how little Little Ricky Skaggs was when he invited me up,” he recounted. “I don’t think he had an idea that he was getting a six-year-old on stage with him.”

The two would share a lifetime friendship, that included Monroe taking a part in Skaggs’ very successful ’80s video for “Country Boy” as the crotchety old Uncle Pen in New York City.

Skaggs came up through the ranks after that fateful performance, playing county fairs and bluegrass gigs. In the ’70s he joined Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band. He released his first solo album in ’79 and enjoyed a string of hits through the ’80s and into the ’90s. Even in his heyday at the top of the mainstream country music charts, Skaggs was a traditionalist.

“I came to Nashville and my heart was to try to bring tradition back to country music, but also bring the elements of bluegrass into that with the harmonies.” Skaggs said. “The harmonies I was singing with ‘Cry My Heart Out Over You’ and ‘Wouldn’t Change You If I Could,’ those were three-part bluegrass…vocals that were prominent in the Stanley Brothers sound from the ’40s and early ’50s.”

And even then, he was told a lot that bluegrass wouldn’t sell. He proved them wrong, but even in the neo-traditional era of country music that was hugely successful for mainstream country in the early to mid ’80s, bluegrass was looked at as old-fashioned.

“People would say, ‘Well bluegrass doesn’t sell you, know,’” Skaggs said. “What my comment would be back is, ‘Well then why does McDonald’s, why does Toyota, why does American Express — all these huge corporations — why do they have a banjo or a mandolin or a Dobro or something like that in their commercials? Because it grabs your ear. You will listen to it when you hear it.’ They are smart enough to figure that out, why can’t the record labels figure that out you know?”