Ricky Skaggs Talks Naomi Judd, Bill Monroe, Ongoing Tour
Ricky Skaggs started playing the mandolin when he was only 5 years old.
Sixty-two years later — after his pile of Grammys, his Country and Bluegrass Hall of Fame inductions, and his National Medal of Arts — I ask Skaggs how his life might have been different if he hadn’t started so early. If on the contrary, he had started playing music as a teenager, when many musicians start.
“Oh my God,” Skaggs said, with a sigh. “Well, I wouldn’t have met (bluegrass pioneer) Bill Monroe when I was 6 years old. I wouldn’t have been on stage on (legendary instrumentalists) Flatt & Scruggs’ TV show at the age 7. I wouldn’t have I met (iconic bluegrass duo) the Stanley Brothers until I was 9 or 10. I got to shake hands and share a stage with these folks at the age of 10. My life would have been a lot different. Maybe I didn’t take it (the music) as seriously as I did.
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Born in Cordell, Kentucky, Skaggs’ intersection with Monroe occurred while performing near Monroe and his band The Blue Grass Boys. Some of the Skaggs family neighbors, who had seen Ricky playing the mandolin at church or maybe at the local grocery store, kept calling Monroe to let “little Ricky Skaggs” ride. and sing a song with the group. “And I guess he wanted to end it,” Skaggs recalled, “so he agreed to let me go up there.”
After going on stage, Monroe asked him what he was playing and he told her mandolin. That day, Skaggs hadn’t brought the mandolin his father had given him, as he had no idea he would play it. Monroe took his own Gibson F-5 mandolin off his shoulder and put it on Skaggs. The F-5 looked like a guitar on the kid, to scale.
On stage and with Monroe’s mandolin, Skaggs began playing the Osbourne Brothers song “Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man”. “Thank goodness the band knew that,” Skaggs says. “But when we started playing, I just remember how good it was to stay there and play with a whole band. And then go to the next year, you can see me on Flatt’s show & Scruggs on YouTube, black and white stuff, you can see the joy on my face I tell you, when you have joy in your heart, there are things you can do that you wouldn’t have never thought possible.
During a recent phone interview, Skaggs – back on tour with his band Kentucky Thunder – spoke about those memories and more. Excerpts edited below.
Ricky, what are you planning with Kentucky Thunder for this series of shows? What can people expect to hear in the setlist?
Well, we still get requests for some of our old country stuff. And we do it, just a little more acoustically than it was recorded. We don’t have the steel guitar that travels with us, but one of my guitarists and band singers plays percussion, and it changes the sound of the band a bit, from all the usual bluegrass we do. . This gives it a slightly more country sound.
Where we don’t have steel, I’ll play guitar or something. And where we don’t have a piano, we’ll take like a mandolin and play the licks or whatever. But on the singing side, it’s still like country records. “Uncle Pen” (released in 1984) was a number one country hit, and “Highway 40 Blues” (from 1983) is just full-fledged bluegrass like we do. And they were cut pretty much that way. They just had drums and a piano on it, a steel guitar. But they were definitely bluegrass, that’s for sure.
And so, we’re going to do some of that. And I’ve written a lot of instruments here lately, over the last five years. We make a lot of instruments. You know, there’s a lot of bands out there, a lot of bluegrass bands, they just don’t play instruments. I mean, they’ll play (Flatt & Scruggs instrumental) “Cumberland Gap” or something, but they don’t really play any original instrumentals. And so, I love doing that. We like to play instrumentals. We love to jam. We are truly a bluegrass jam band in many ways.
We have some really good gospel songs that we’re doing from “Mosaic”, a CD (from 2010) that I made with Gordon Kennedy (producer). He (co) wrote “Change the World” for Eric Clapton, and he’s (Kennedy) on the road now with Garth (Brooks) playing guitar and singing harmony.
So it’s a complete show. We do Flatt & Scruggs, Stanley Brothers, Reno and Smiley, Bill Monroe. Lots to learn that many of the younger generation really haven’t heard of. But when they hear something really traditional and stuff, I think they can relate to it, because that’s not what they often hear.
It’s something new for us, but it’s something new for them. And it’s a really cool thing to be able to play music for younger people. I really like doing this.
You recently inducted your friends (vocal duo) The Judds into the Country Music Hall of Fame, just about a day after Naomi Judd passed away. How did you get out? And what’s a vivid memory of being there with Wynonna and Ashley Judd for that initiation?
Well, it was a hard day. A lot of people thought, “Man, why would they even want to do that, you know, with their mother who died the day before?” I know Wynonna pretty well, as painful as it was, it would be even more painful to wait for the October induction ceremony. Waiting and living with that and then, you know, taking that bandage off and ripping the scab off again, that just didn’t make sense to them. They wanted to move on and start the healing process. And I don’t blame them.
As difficult as it was, there was a lot of joy there and just seeing the girls being able to honor their mom… And people ask me all the time, ever since it happened, “How do you are you out?” And I say, “Look, I had a lot of help.” God gives peace in situations where there is pain, suffering and sorrow. God always gives peace to those who trust him and to those who believe in him.
But that’s how we got away with it. There were many things in Naomi’s past that were full of fun and joy, and we celebrated those things. We also know about the mental health issues she’s struggled with and many emotional roller coasters in her life. And I’m sorry it had to be like this for her. But I think she was just happy to stop the pain. Who knows exactly what she was thinking? But we went through it with great joy, and everyone was very tender towards them, and very loving. That’s what’s great about the country music community and the bluegrass community.
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder perform tonight at 7 p.m. at the Princess Theater in Decatur. The show is sold out, according to the website of the place. More info on rickyskaggs.com.