Ricky Skaggs Lets His Fingers Do the Talking

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 5, 2007

Just about now, Ricky Skaggs could be retiring from Virginia Electric Power Co., where he'd have put in some 30-plus years.

"Oh, boy! I could probably get my little wristwatch from Wal-Mart or whatever they give away," Skaggs says with a laugh from Hendersonville, Tenn., where he has lived since 1981.

Skaggs might well have become a Vepco executive along the way, but at 21, he was working in a boiler room by day, still figuring out his musical prospects by night as the new fiddler with local bluegrass icons, the Country Gentlemen.

It was a crossroads moment for Skaggs, a child prodigy from eastern Kentucky who started playing mandolin at age 5, stepped onto a stage to pick with bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe at 6, appeared on television with Flatt & Scruggs a year later and became, at 15, mandolinist and tenor singer with Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys. Before the Gentlemen called, he'd played with progressive bluegrass banjoist J.D. Crowe & the New South and formed Boone Creek with future country star Keith Whitley.

"The job at Vepco was important," Skaggs recalls. "I had been with Ralph a couple of years before that, and the work was hard, with lots of traveling and very minimal pay. I was 16, 17 then, so it wasn't like I deserved a lot more money."

His needs were different as an adult, and Skaggs found himself wondering, "Am I gonna do this part time and weekends and work through the week, like a lot of musicians in that area did? The Seldom Scene, for instance -- they maintained their jobs and still got to play and make records and go out and work when they wanted to. So there was some reckoning that took place in Washington for me.

"And I decided not to do that and took the job with the Country Gentlemen full time, and I've never looked back. I knew that God created me to be a musician, not to be a high-pressure boiler operator flooding the basement every once in a while."

It was a living room that provided Skaggs's next big opportunity, one belonging to John Starling of the Seldom Scene. That's where, at a late-night jam session on a fall night in 1974, Skaggs met Linda Ronstadt and another young singer with local roots.

"Linda was in town playing the Cellar Door -- I'd heard of her," Skaggs remembers. "But I'd never heard of Emmylou Harris. I was invited over, took my fiddle and mandolin, met Linda -- and then this tall, lanky, long-haired lady came in carrying a guitar case, and it was Emmylou. That was our first meeting.

"I remember that night being such a great night," he continues. "I was doing what I had done all my life musically, singing old Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Carter Family songs I'd learned as a kid growing up in eastern Kentucky and the years I was with Ralph, and it was like [Harris and Ronstadt] had discovered someone from another planet. It was an incredible night because the relationships that started that night went on for years."

Skaggs would join Harris's fabled Hot Band in 1977 after Rodney Crowell left to pursue a solo career and over the next three years helped push Harris toward traditional country and bluegrass, most notably on 1979's "Blue Kentucky Girl" and 1980's straight-ahead bluegrass album, "Roses in the Snow." In 1979, Skaggs also released his solo debut, "Sweet Temptation," a meld of bluegrass and traditional country that caught the ears of a major Nashville label, Epic. Skaggs's first country album, "Waitin' for the Sun to Shine," produced four hit singles, including two No. 1's (one of them Flatt & Scruggs' "Don't Get Above Your Raising").

Skaggs had few peers as a combination singer and picker, and he and Harris soon found themselves at the forefront of a neo-traditionalist movement many credited with saving country music from the countrypolitan/urban cowboy doldrums of the '80s. Ironically, they helped put the country back in country, though the progressive aspects of that influence often got overlooked in the back-to-basics obsession. The decade was a boon for Skaggs, as he racked up 12 No. 1 hits and six more Top 10 singles and picked up dozens of industry awards, including the first three of his now 10 Grammys and eight awards from the Country Music Association. The CMA Male Vocalist of the Year in 1982, Skaggs graduated to Entertainer of the Year just three years later.

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