Six years ago, Ricky Skaggs was typecast as a bluegrass musician. Who could have known he'd turn into the George Lucas of Nashville?
Lucas' "Star Wars" trilogy revived the moribund sci-fi genre by mixing a genuine reverence for old values with a dazzling application of modern technology. Skaggs' back-to-basics approach turned country music on its head the same way -- dressing up a rich but underexposed form without betraying its integrity.
"He Lucas was using the technology but taking it back, too, to real people and real life," Skaggs says. "As much as you can dream and be in a fantasy while you're watching his things, you feel so at home because you've lived it . . . He took unknown actors and created incredible things out of them.
"And that's what we're able to do with old songs and musicians that no one ever really heard of."
Skaggs remembers a bet in 1981 -- around the time of "Waitin' for the Sun to Shine," his first CBS album -- between one of the label's Nashville men and a doubting field rep in Chicago. The rep didn't think a young musician known mainly in the bluegrass field, and as a member of country rocker Emmylou Harris' Hot Band, could have any significant impact on mainstream country music.
"That guy said, 'You won't sell 50,000 albums on it,' " Skaggs chuckles, "so, being generous, he bet a steak dinner and gave me a year to reach that figure."
Well, the record, which Skaggs also insisted on producing, sold some 500,000 copies, spawned the first of Skaggs' nine No.1 country hits, established him as the architect of neotraditionalism in country music, led to his becoming the youngest inductee into the cast of the Grand Ole Opry, and set the stage for his being named country music's entertainer of the year in 1985. Tonight, he'll perform at Constitution Hall, one of the smallest venues he's played in some time.
"Obviously," Skaggs says, looking quite satisfied, "that man got his steak."
Ricky Skaggs, now 31, got his stake early on with Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, two of the legendary founding fathers of bluegrass. Skaggs first joined Monroe on stage at age 5, was featured on Flatt and Scruggs' television show at 7, and at 15, became one of Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys.
Nashville's new traditionalists, who virtually swept last year's Country Music Awards, encompass a number of old styles. But the movement Skaggs provoked is known as the Monroe Doctrine and can be traced to the mountains of Kentucky.
What Skaggs came out with -- hot picking, plaintive singing, tight harmonies and uncluttered production -- was totally at odds with the formulaic, homogenized and sterile "NasVegas" sound that dominated country music. Skaggs' searing, melismatic tenor and deep reservoir of classic songs informed his work with the spirit of bluegrass, old-fashioned country, western swing and honky tonk.
Still, it was in bluegrass that the Kentucky native first made his reputation, and it was that sound that made everyone in Nashville sit up and listen. "Bluegrass has always had permanent cult status," Skaggs points out, "although people used the banjo, the mandolin and the fiddle to draw attention to commercials through the '70s and '80s. That's the reason I knew there was something about bluegrass that everybody liked."
The biggest thing holding the music back, Skaggs suggests, has been "people in bluegrass wanting to treat it like a child you don't want to ever go outside your house . . . That child will never learn anything; he'll learn to play that kind of music, but that's it.
"Sure, I got to hear Bill Monroe and that was great, and I grew up with the Stanley Brothers and it was great to be able to be associated with all that. But I had to hear the Beatles and the Stones, James Taylor and the Hollies and the Everly Brothers . . . I got into Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhart, all kinds of different music. And it made me appreciate the traditional roots of my music even more, because I heard those roots in almost every music that I would come upon.
"With the Beatles I heard the Everly Brothers, with the Everly Brothers I heard the Louvins, with the Louvins I heard the Monroe Brothers. It all based back, the line runs straight back."
The line ran back to bluegrass, but country had gone uptown. And Nashville's powers seemed afraid, not so much of their musical past as of their perceived cultural origins -- particularly the pickin' and grinnin' stereotypes reinforced by such television shows as "Hee Haw" and "The Beverly Hillbillies." Yet Skaggs' fans and fellow musicians quickly embraced his return-to-roots values. One of his first hits was a revamped Lester Flatt tune, "Don't Get Above Your Raising," and suddenly, that notion was in vogue.
It's not that Skaggs went into the business with a mission. More with a dose of good taste. Though country music was part of the musical melting pot he experienced growing up in Cordell, Ky., Skaggs had not had that much contact with its legends, the George Joneses, the Merle Haggards. "I never really knew the general attitude of country music artists, what their will and wants and wishes were," he says.
"I just knew that when I turned on the radio, just about every song I heard was cheatin' and drinkin' and runnin' around songs, or real crossover -- Crystal Gayle, Eddie Rabbitt, Kenny Rogers. When I did 'Sweet Temptation' a 1979, small-label solo album that gave a good indication of what was coming , I did it because I really enjoy playing rockabilly, western swing, gospel, bluegrass. It was a please-myself album and I come to find out it pleased a lot of other people who felt it was neat, new but old."
Skaggs doesn't totally reject contemporary country's liturgy of woe. "But why whip a dead horse?" he says. "It's like everybody else was going one direction; I said nah and we went the other direction, we went back. But actually, going back, we've circled around and now we're where the market is."
That market, it seems, includes not just country's traditional strongholds -- the South and Southwest -- but the Northeast and Canada and even Europe (Skaggs' latest album is a live recording from London). But when he settled in this area after years of long hours, low pay and incessant travel (he lived in Dunfries, Va., and worked as a boiler operator for Vepco in the early '70s), he wasn't planning any overseas tours. He was just "bangin' around," he says "not really lookin' for anything."
Not surprisingly, he gravitated to the vibrant bluegrass circles that included the newgrass Seldom Scene, the more traditional Country Gentlemen (Skaggs was a member for several years, as a fiddler) and Emmylou Harris, who had become a country star after years on the Washington club circuit. For a while, he had his own progressive bluegrass band, Boone Creek, but Skaggs eventually joined Harris' Hot Band, a harbinger of his acoustic/electric instrumental mix.
With Harris, Skaggs not only sang, but played mandolin, fiddle, guitar and banjo. His work defined her critically acclaimed traditional album "Roses in the Snow" before he embarked on his solo career.
Skaggs is known as a perfectionist, a fastidious, no-nonsense leader. Reflecting his own strong Christian beliefs, he allows no drinking, drugs or smoking within the organization. His band is as hot as one could hope to hear, but Skaggs maintains such a tight rein on everything that he's sometimes referred to as "Picky Ricky."
"To pick up this kind of a band and keep it together, there has to be a lot of love," he responds. "It would be real easy for me to let this great band of mine get out there and just play everything they know. If they did, it wouldn't sound anything like my music at all."
Skaggs' Christian strength is deeply rooted in family experience. "I know it probably sounds real old-fashioned or stupid," he says, "but I could not record a song that I wouldn't sit down and sing for my mom and dad. It would break their heart if I did something like that, and it would break my heart to know that I had hurt them."
"There's times when I don't feel like I should bring the issue of his religion up and there's times when I feel led to," he adds. "I'm certainly not ashamed of it . . . It's important to me to let people know what's happening in my life because Rick Skaggs is the success story that you always dream about as a musician -- on his first album he has a No. 1 record, entertainer of the year in four years . . . What's different about him?
"God's been real good to me and I know that," he continues, "but that goes so far. God gives the talent and if we sit in the corner and don't do anything with it, it will rot eventually . . . I do thank God for the talent , because that's something I didn't have on my own and that's a gift. But I've taken it and done something with it, I haven't just said pour it on me and I'll wait here till it all comes. You can't do that."