Six Questions With ... Ricky Skaggs

The man and his mandolin.
Ricky Skaggs was a bluegrass prodigy, performing with Bill Monroe at the age of 6, sharing the stage with Flatt and Scruggs when he was 7 and joining Ralph Stanley on tour as a teenage mandolin virtuoso.

In the 1980s, Skaggs became a Nashville star - a neo-traditionalist with a long line of hit singles, from "Crying My Heart Out Over You" and "Heartbroke" to "Country Boy" and "Cajun Moon."

Skaggs eventually returned his bluegrass roots and has more or less spent the past dozen years doing bluegrass and nothing but. Tonight, the 54-year-old multi-instrumentalist performs at Wolf Trap with his band, Kentucky Thunder, and his surprise 2007 collaborator, Bruce Hornsby. Skaggs called from the road to talk about his old country hits, the problem with music videos and ... Rick James.

Your new Cracker Barrel album, "The High Notes" [out July 1], features a bunch of your country hits from the '80s done in a bluegrass style. What's your relationship like with those songs and that period of your career?
Well, gosh, they're like kids that's grown up now. We've gotten a lot of requests for those songs over the years, especially since I started playing bluegrass in '96-'97. Some of them, we just didn't have worked up to do in a bluegrass way. Sitting down and having to rethink 'em, changing the arrangements on some of these things - taking the time to do that has given me a whole new perspective.

I honestly think some of these songs came out better than the originals, I really do. A lot of times, when you go into the studio to do a new record, you get a song that you really like a lot. And you say: Man, I gotta cut that. Well, you haven't sung it more than two or three times by the time it gets to tape. So after three or four or five years of singing it during that time I had my country band, it got a whole lot better. Looking forward 20 years, I just think I'm singing some of 'em better, and some of the music is better. Some of them fit better from a bluegrass perspective, even though they were No. 1 country hits.

You had a tremendous amount of success as a country artist, with all those hit singles. You even won a Country Music Association Award for entertainer of the year and had Chet Atkins talking about how you'd single-handedly saved country. Would you ever return to the genre?
I don't think so. I just don't look that good on video anymore. Country music is so video-driven now, it's so image-conscious. It's all about the look, it's all about how you do on TV and video. To me, it's a real shame; it lessens the quality of the music. There've been some great artists that sing great, that write wonderfully, perform great, but because they were not a 32-36 in their pants, or they wasn't a size 4 girl, they just didn't quite make it.

It's a shame that it's gotten so image-conscious. The music should never, ever be about what we look like. It should be about what's coming out of our heart, our spirit, what we're saying, how we're performing. There's just so much more to art than what the eye sees. Obviously, it has to be sold; everybody wants to sell their art. But when you look at a Salvador Dali painting, you don't just look at how he drew it. You start getting into the heart of what he was saying, what he was trying to bring out, whether it was something about the church, something about life, about love. There was something else deeper. It was never meant to be just what you see on the canvas.

I think that's what's really happened with country music, unfortunately. But bluegrass is still the purest form alive. It's a form that hasn't been prostituted and commercialized so much that it tells us what to sing, how to dress, what we have to do. It's still about the music, it's still about the heart, it's still about the musician, and I just hope and pray that it never gets so commercialized that it starts to become image-conscious.

(More after the jump.)

There's less money to be made in bluegrass than in country music, isn't there?
Not if you own your own label. (Laughs.) I've been blessed to have my own studio and my own label. It was really was a great thing to have the name I acquired in country music. Obviously, Epic spent a lot of money on me on promotion. But I i feel like they've got 12 or 14 great masters of mine, too, that they can continue to sell for years to come.

I'm not selling as many records as I used to, but the records that I'm selling, I own 'em and I get the profit from 'em. I have a distribution deal with Fontana, so I'm out in the same stores where Sony and Warner Bros. and RCA are as well. There's a lot of work that comes along with it. You've gotta have a staff. It's not like you have a manager and let the record company do the rest of the work for you. You've gotta gear up for extra people and salaries and all.

And nowadays, when I look at the country music artists that I was running with and in competition with, a lot of those artists aren't around anymore. I see George Strait, I see Alan Jackson, I see Reba, Randy Travis, Clint Black, Travis Tritt. ... But a lot of the guys don't really have careers now where they're making a good livin' with music. Honestly, I'm making more money now on my [concert] dates than I was in the country days. When I started playing bluegrass again, I got smart and was able to simplify my life and get down to one bus and not carry a drummer, not carry a steel-guitar player, not carry a piano player - just go out as an acoustic bluegrass band. So I don't have two buses, I don't have a tractor-trailer, I don't have 20 people on the road like I did back then.

You have a really strong sense of tradition, as with last year's "Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 and 1947." Is it possible to play bluegrass and not feel a connection to the music's roots and history? Don't you pretty much have to be an admiring student of the past?
I'm always going to feel that sense of drawing back because I knew those men personally. I had a wonderful relationship with Flatt and Scruggs and, of course, I still know Earl Scruggs - of the five guys who started this sound, he's the only one left. I had a great relationship with Bill Monroe. I knew Chubby Wise, as well. Never got to meet Howard Watts, the bass player. But it's hard for me to go out there and play Bill Monroe songs or Ralph Stanley songs and not think about the times I traveled with Ralph and worked in his band for two years. All those things come back.

But Chris Thile, a brilliant mandolin player who I just saw last night, he comes up and we're talking all kinds of music, mandolins and everything like that, but I don't think he has a sense of obligation to play Bill Monroe or a sense that he needs to play Ricky Skaggs, David Grisman or any of the other mandolin players out there. He's established his own sound, his own style. Same with Bela Fleck, even though he's older than Chris, a different generation. Some of these students that have come along, I don't know that they have a need to connect to tradition. I think some people would rather disconnect so that they're not identified with the old; they want to be identified with the new and the fresh, the exciting, the whatever.

I love doing both. I love being connected to the past because of my relationships. Because of the depth of music that I have, for for me to disconnect, I'd have to disconnect 45 years of playing. It'd be impossible for me to do that. So I try to glean from the things I've learned and try to play my own sound and my own style. Inevitably, Monroe's going to come into my playing somehow. It's just there, and I'm thankful for it. I think it's wonderful.

A lot of the guys like Chris Thile and the new mandolin players that are out there, they don't know where that lick came from. Hey, man, what was that? Oh, man, that was Pee Wee Lambert, 1947. You should get you some of that. That was one of the main reasons I recorded "Honoring the Fathers," so that some of the iPod generation would maybe try to go back and listen to some of those original cuts and try to hear what those guys were doing.

You got a lot of attention last year when you covered a very untraditional song - the Rick James funk hit, "Super Freak" - on your album with Bruce Hornsby.
That was Bruce's fault. I blame him totally for it. He made me do it.

But look, if Robert Plant can collaborate with Alison Krauss and bring Stuart Duncan on the road with him, and Nirvana can perform "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?"/"In the Pines," you can do whatever you want.
I think so. Bruce had been humming that song, doing it like Prince singing bluegrass. You know how Prince sings a really high falsetto kind of thing? Every time we talked about doing a bluegrass album, Bruce would do "Super Freak" like Prince singing like John Anderson. I didn't know if it was a joke or what.

We'd already cut about half the record, and one day he came in to do some more tracks. We did two or three that morning, then broke for lunch. Bruce comes in and says: "All right, boys, let's cut the 'Freak.'" We all kind of looked at each other like: He's really serious about this. While he was home for a few days, he'd gone into his studio and cut a little demo, just piano and vocals. We put it together, changed a few things for the banjo and acoustic guitars and fiddle and all that, put a little modulation thing there at the end. And that's how it came about. I just played along. The weirdest thing I've ever done, no doubt.

By J. Freedom du Lac |  June 25, 2008; 8:37 AM ET Interviews
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I saw the tour in the spring - even though it's a co-bill, it comes across as Ricky Skaggs and his band with special guest Bruce Hornsby.

Still, a great night of music, especially when you throw in the opening act.

Posted by: Hemisphire | June 25, 2008 9:59 AM

Enjoyed the interview. Skaggs is a terrific musician and music man.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 26, 2008 2:21 PM

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