Promoting the Old Traditions
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Ricky Skaggs knows how blessed he is, even when facing a musical injury.
He won’t be able to play his mandolin because he tore a bicep tendon in July and his doctors haven’t cleared him to play yet. But when his band, Kentucky Thunder, visits the Clyde Theatre on November 9, he knows where he needs to concentrate.
“It’s been tough,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s a hard thing just to stand there and sing. But, I’ll tell you, it’s given me a fresh new focus on my singing. I thought, ‘Man, if this is the only thing I can do, I really want to do this well tonight.’
“I want to listen to every word I am saying,” Skaggs said. “I want to sing in tune, I want to sing with emotion, I want to sing with fun and joy.”
Patrons shouldn’t notice any deficiency in musicianship. Skaggs always surrounds himself with hot young musicians who play like they’ve got something to prove.
Anybody who thinks bluegrass is something quaint and genteel hasn’t heard Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder play it.
On stage at times, the band comes across as the Metallica of country music. Its members can play with a speed and ferocity that should please even the most jaded headbanger.
While it is true that Skaggs has become one of bluegrass’s grand old men and has earned the right to rule his band with an iron fist, he says he doesn’t place “a restraining bar” on his young players.
“I let ’em play,” he said. “And their interpretations and their read on these old songs is just fresh again to me. It’s as fresh as when Benny Martin played with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. I love hearing these young guys play.”
Old guys giving young guys a chance to play is a tradition in bluegrass and Skaggs was once on the callow end of that tradition.
Before he’d turned 8 years old, Skaggs had already performed on stage with Bill Monroe and with Flatt & Scruggs. He joined Ralph Stanley’s band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, when he was still in his teens.
Recently, Skaggs was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
These honors stirred mixed emotions in him.
He said he couldn’t help but think of about how much easier he had it than those guys who had inspired him.
“Most of my touring life, I got to ride around on a touring bus,” he said, “and rest and let a driver take me from one show to the next. Those fathers — that first generation of guys — paid such a price.”
When Skaggs learned that he would be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, it bothered him that Ralph and Carter Stanley still hadn’t been inducted.
“That was a little bit of a … almost of an embarrassment,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m going in and they’re not?’”
But he eventually made peace with it.
“Their name and their plaque might not be in there,” he said, “but they’re going in as I go in.”
Skaggs, who had not yet gone through they induction ceremony when I spoke with him, said he would acknowledge the Stanley Brothers from the stage.
“They will be very much mentioned and there will be a real grateful heart in me,” he said.
Bluegrass has had its ups and downs in recent years. A resurgence happened in the first part of the 21st century, thanks to O Brother, Where Art Thou? That movie was good for many years of bluegrass package tours, some of which Skaggs participated in.
Progressive bluegrass — a combination of bluegrass, rock, alternative country, and indie folk — was all the rage for a while. One of its chief practitioners, mandolinist Chris Thile, is currently the host of Live From Here, the weekly public radio show formerly known as A Prairie Home Companion.
Skaggs has come to see himself as a protector and promotor of bluegrass traditions.
“The older I get, the more I realize that it’s part of my calling,” he said. “There’s a lot of tradition that’s not worth keeping, but bluegrass is definitely worth keeping. The foundation stones are so strong that there’s so much to be built on.”
Skaggs said he isn’t as familiar with newer bluegrass acts as he probably should be, but he wants to be an encourager.
He saw Paul McCartney cheer on younger acts at the Grammies a few years back, and it made a big impression on him.
“I thought, ‘Wait. That’s Paul McCartney. He doesn’t have to do that.’ And then I realized, ‘Oh, he does have to do that.’ We need to encourage the younger ones.”
Bill Monroe invited a 6-year-old Skaggs up on stage to play with him and such encouragement is one of the reasons Skaggs persevered to become the award-winning artist he is today.
“He let me come up and play his mandolin,” Skaggs said. “I could have dropped it and stepped on it. The kindness that he showed me … it was just a beautiful thing.”