LAST MONDAY afternoon, Ricky Skaggs had to leave a Nashville recording studio in the middle of a song to take delivery of furniture bought during a State Department tour of Pakistan with Buck White and the Down Home Folks. In early August, the 26-year-old will marry Buck's daughter, singer Sharon White. The wedding will be "in the middle of the week when most of the pickers will be home," says the soft-spoken Skaggs. "We're going to tell 'em to bring a covered dish and a guitar."
Skaggs, who will be at the Birchmere on Tuesday night, has been at the vanguard of revitalized traditions in country through his work with Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash. It's somewhat unusual for a musician of his age to be so steeped in music that had reached its zenith by 1960, but Skaggs was an early starter. The native of Brushy Creek, Kentucky, earned his first money as a mandolin player at the age of 5. The Eastern Kentucky homeground was a fertile one, having previously yielded Loretta Lynn, the Osborne Brothers and Tom T. Hall.
"It was called old-time country, hillbilly music, before the name bluegrass got stuck on the music," Skaggs explains. What he's doing now is basically "the old-time, gospel-country music that I would hear my parents sing. My mother and dad were both real good singers. My father played guitar, taught me three chords on the mandolin and got me started into it. When I heard Ralph Stanley singing that high harmony part, it sounded a lot like my mother."
The seminal Stanley Brothers' singing style -- Skaggs describes it as "Victorian translated to hillbilly style" -- had a great influence on the 6-year-old prodigy, and by the time he was 7, his parents had moved to Nashville "to get me going in the music business." Despite his reputation the Grand Ole Opry wouldn't let Skaggs on because of a strictly enforced age policy, but he was an early guest on the Flatt and Scruggs television show; Skaggs' current hit single, "Don't Get Above Your Raising," is, incidentally, an ancient Flatt and Scruggs melody.
Carter Stanley's death in 1966 was a "down-time, I about went into hysterics," Skaggs recalls. By this time, he and another 15-year-old, guitarist Keith Whitley, had built up a show of classic Stanley Brothers material, had even done guest spots with the Brothers when their tours had passed through Kentucky. "We went to see Ralph in Ft. Cary, West Virginia, right across the line from Eastern Kentucky. We heard that his new guitarist and singer, Roy Lee Centers, was just like Carter; some said he was a dead ringer. We took our instruments and kept them in the car, not knowing Ralph and them were going to be late."
The club's owner asked them to perform a set of Stanley Brothers music and "while we was up singing to keep the crowd restless -- I mean from being restless -- Ralph walked in and boy, we about freaked out. He set his banjo case down, sat on a stool and listened to us. Didn't smile, just kind of reminisced. It think it brought back a lot of memories, seeing two young boys up there singing that old-time mountain music." Stanley slowly drew the teen-agers into his Clinch Mountain Boys, and Skaggs and Whitley made their professional debuts (though they'd been playing for a long time) at the Carter Stanley Memorial Festival that year.
Skaggs stayed with Stanley for almost three years before stepping out of the music business and moving to Washington to work for Vepco. The money in bluegrass was minimal and Skaggs was about to get married for the first time. His four months with Vepco -- he calls them "a pressurous time" -- ended when he was called back into service by the Country Gentlemen, with whom he stayed two years. It was during this time he met a local folk singer named Linda Ronstadt, Lowell George of Little Feat, and other people who would facilitate his entry into the Los Angeles scene later on.
The next few years were taken up playing with J. D. Crowe and the New South (one of the most important bands of the '70s) and trying to make a go of his own group, Boone Creek, but "we were settin' and spinnin' our wheels. There was not enough determination in the group as what I had." In 1977, Skaggs got a call from Harris to replace Rodney Crowell, and for the next three years he was an integral part of Harris' Hot Band. He's credited with steering her away from country schlock into the old-time country and bluegrass vein that reached a peak on "Roses in the Snow."
Although that album has now sold close to 500,000 copies, Skaggs remembers Warner Bros. Records' shuddering reaction on first hearing the tapes. "They said, 'What's that ?' and Emmylou said 'That's my next record.' They couldn't believe it, they thought she was joking." Among the discoveries Harris had made: Stanley Brothers songs, which occupied almost half the album. Harris also sang with Skaggs on two Stanley Brothers songs that were small-label regional hits for him, "I'll Take the Blame" and "Could You Love Me One More Time" (the latter having since been recorded by Waylon Jennings and John Conleej). "It's sad that Ralph and Carter Stanley worked all those years and never had a song on the charts," Skaggs says. "It hurts and makes me feel sorry for these people that I have a song that's going to be No. 18 next week and I haven't worked one-tenth the amount of miles and time that those people have." However, Ralph Stanley has probably earned more royalties as a result of Skaggs' subtle missionary work over the last five years than he had in 30 years before.
"Wating for the Sun to Shine," Skaggs' first major label album (reviewed elsewhere in this page), is a subtle mixture of bluegrass tunes and vocals and pre-slick country backing, updating the music without overriding its origins. "There's a fine line to be drawn, but I think I draw it, between bluegrass and country music. My influence, especially on vocals, is about as bluegrassy as can be, but the music is a bit more acceptable to a larger amount of people." Among the highlights of the album is Skaggs' harmony singing, a facet of his talent that any Harris fan already appreciates.Skaggs is generally regarded as the finest harmony singer in country and bluegrass; his ability to wrap his voice around other peoples' is uncanny. "I just listen," he says shyly. "And I don't think I've ever sung with someone who didn't sing good, especially on record."
Pointing out that had Emmylou Harris put out a bluegrass album at the beginning of her career, she might never have gotten to where she is now, Skaggs insists that he'll never abandon his roots. The old-time sound is "something I hope won't ever die out. I think it's pure, natural, original." And there's also a wealth of material that most people in this country have never heard. If only the record industry will cooperate. Skaggs has another album coming out on the small Sugar Hill label, which also put out his superb album of old-style country brother duets with Tony Rice. While the new Sugar Hill album will continue his current mixture of country, bluegrass and western swing, it won't feature one of his good friends, Dolly Parton. "Dolly sang on two cuts, one country and one Stanley Brothers song. It's beautiful stuff that she did on it, but her record company [RCA] wouldn't give her a realease." sIt's the same kind of non-musical narrowmindedness that scotched the fabled Trio recording of Harris, Parton and Ronstadt, who unfortunately happened to be signed to three different labels.
Still, Ricky Skaggs has been around long enough to not let such concerns overwhelm him. He's surrounded himself with a music for 21 years and he compares it to someone working on cars from the age of 5. "You're going to get good at it you love it, it you enjoy workin' on it. I just love the music and a lot of the people in it who struggled all their lives to have it."