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Ricky Skaggs: A Bluegrass Musician Returns To Roots

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Ricky Skaggs: A Bluegrass Musician Returns To Roots

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Ricky Skaggs: A Bluegrass Musician Returns To Roots

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TERRY GROSS, host:

(Soundbite of song, "If I Could Only Win Your Love")

This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. Our Country Music Week continues with mandolin player and singer Ricky Skaggs. In 1970, when he was 15, he joined Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys. He later joined The Country Gentlemen and J.D. Crowe & The New South, then formed his own band, Boone Creek. He left the band to back up singer Emmylou Harris.

In the early 1980s he changed direction and became one of the most successful of the new traditional country artists, recording 10 number one hits between 1982 and '86. He won the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year Award in 1985. In 1997 he returned to bluegrass, becoming a leader of its revival.

Heres a track from his 2008 album, "The High Notes."

(Soundbite of song, "Uncle Pen")

Mr. RICKY SKAGGS (Musician): Oh, the people would come from far away, to dance all night to the break of day. When the caller would holler: Do Si Do, they knew Uncle Pen was ready to go. Late in the evening, about sundown, high on the hill, and above the town, Uncle Pen played the fiddle, Lord, how it rang, you could hear it talk, you'd hear it sing.

GROSS: That's Ricky Skaggs performing the Bill Monroe song "Uncle Pen."

I spoke with Skaggs in 2003. He started performing on stage as a child. When he was six he found himself on stage with Bill Monroe's band. I asked him how that happened.

Mr. SKAGGS: Well, he came to Martha, Kentucky, which is a little small town close to Blaine, Kentucky, where I was raised, and they played the high school and we, my mom and dad and I, my brothers and sister went to see him. And we watched him unload, and oh man, that was the coolest thing to see him get out of this big stretch limousine that they were riding in, and it looked like they just walked out of the dry cleaners; there wasnt a wrinkle anywhere, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SKAGGS: And they looked so stinking cool and they got the bass fiddle off, you know, off the rooftop and they set up a little sound system and we went in and sat down and listen to him play. And about 20 or 30 minutes into the show, some of the neighbors in the hood started, you know, requesting, let little Ricky Skaggs get up and sing, you know, and I see it in my own life now, you know, where people start, you know, making those kind of requests, you know, when I'm out on the road playing now.

But after, you know, 10 or 15 minutes of that, why, finally Mr. Monroe said, well, wheres he at? You know, and he didnt have any idea who little Ricky Skaggs was. And so I come walking up to the front of the stage and he reaches down and picks me up and sets me on stage and says, what do you play, boy? And I said, well, I play the mandolin, sir. And so he took his mandolin off of his shoulder and wrapped it around the, you know, made the strap fit me, you know, and I stood there and sang a Bob and Sonny Osborne song called "Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SKAGGS: For a six-year-old to be singing a song like that, you know. But it was the biggest thing that had ever happened, you know, to me in my life at that time, being six years old and getting to play with the father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe.

GROSS: Is there a certain harmony that's like wired into your head from when you were really young - a certain like interval that you always sang?

Mr. SKAGGS: Right. I always heard the third, you know, that's the tenor line, is what we call it. If the lead was the one and the tenor would be the third and the baritone would be the fifth, usually the fifth would come below, you know, the one - the lead, until the Stanley Brothers moved it up above the third, which is really cool. But that's the part that I always heard.

My mother said, you know, she would be working, doing her chores at home, cooking or whatever, and I would be in the other room playing with my toys. And she'd be singing in the kitchen and she could hear me harmonizing with her in the other room at a young age. It was just -here again, it was just a gift that I could hear that part, you know, because - I guess because she would sing that part with my dad when my dad was home. He worked out of town a lot because he was a welder and he had to travel a lot to wherever the best jobs were. And so I would hear them sing and that was the part that made sense to me, was the third.

GROSS: Well, while we're talking about harmony, why dont we play a track from the CD, "Three Pickers." And youre harmonizing on this with Doc Watson. And the song is "What Would You Give." Are you singing a third higher than Doc Watson on this?

Mr. SKAGGS: Yes. Mm-hmm. Yeah. I love this song.

GROSS: Yeah. It's and it's a great performance. So here you are with Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs from the CD "Three Pickers."

(Soundbite of song, "What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul")

RICKY SKAGGS, DOC WATSON, EARL SCRUGGS: (Singing) Brother afar from the Savior today. Risking your soul for the things that decay. Oh, if today God should call you away, what would you give in exchange for your soul?

What would you give, in exchange. What would you give, in exchange. What would you give in exchange for your soul? Oh, if today God should call you away, what would you give in exchange for your soul?

GROSS: Ricky Skaggs singing with Doc Watson. Earl Scruggs on banjo from the new CD, "Three Pickers."

You had some classic '80s haircuts. I think that should not go unremarked.

Mr. SKAGGS: Oh, you noticed those?

GROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SKAGGS: Yeah. Yeah, Mac mullet. I had a few of those mullet hairdos. My kids look back at them now and they say, Dad, I can't believe that you had that. And I said, well, hey, it was the style then.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: They made me do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SKAGGS: They made me do it. Yeah.

GROSS: You know, I'm just thinking, there's so many things that so many performers in country music do because that's what youre supposed to do in country music and at some point you wonder why, like why does it go on like that? You know, why...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Some of those costumes and...

Mr. SKAGGS: In guess that - I guess really in the '50s, late '40s, early '50s, through the early '60s, you know, the nudie suits, the big flashy, all that, you know.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. SKAGGS: I think there was a lot of artists that really felt that, you know, when a hardworking mom and dad came to the Grand Ole Opry and paid their money to come and see you, you know, you need to treat them the best you can treat them. You know, you dont need to be dressed just like they are.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SKAGGS: You know, they expect better. Theyve paid money. They dont want to see you dressed like they are, because if they do, then youre, you dont look any different. You know, even though you may sing like, you know, the person they come to see, they want to see you dressed to the nines, you know? And so I really think a lot of that was for show. You know, it was before videos. It was before, you know, the big wide screens. And, you know, if you were sitting 40 or 50 rows back, you know, one of those red flashy suits, you could see it all the way, you know, 80 rows back, you know.

GROSS: 1996 was a really life-changing year for you. Your father died. Bill Monroe died. And you left country music and returned to bluegrass. Did the death of your father and the death of Bill Monroe connect at all with your returning to bluegrass?

Mr. SKAGGS: Well, I think it did. Those two men were very, very strong pillars in my life and I knew both of those men really wanted me to be playing bluegrass again. And country music in '96 was really starting to - I dont know, it was starting to really, really change. And I dont know, I just, I just saw the writing on the wall. I mean I was not new country anymore. The kind of country music that I was wanting to record was really what I had recorded since '81, you know, and pretty much traditional country music. You know, trying to find really great songs that said something, songs that had a meaning and love songs, and that just didnt seem to be what was selling on the radio.

And so I really felt, you know, too in my spirit that there was a real paradigm shift about to change, about to take place. And I felt like that, at Mr. Monroe's death, that there was really going to be a change in this music, and I just felt like that when he passed away, that there was going to be, you know, a - I dont know, just a new audience for the music. And I just - I wanted to go back - there was no way that anyone could take Bill Monroe's place and I didnt I, you know, I certainly didnt come back to take his place. But I wanted to come back and take Ricky Skaggs's place, because I really felt like that I had a place in bluegrass.

And so in '96, it was a bittersweet time. I mean, like, you know, like you mentioned, my father passed away, Mr. Monroe passed away. But there was a, even with that death there was a new birth and a new life that came from that. And I think it was a turning point in my career. A lot of people says, man, that's, youre the smartest guy in the world, you know? And but - it was just one of those things that I felt in my heart that I really needed to do, and it was the right thing.

GROSS: Well, Ricky Skaggs, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SKAGGS: Oh, it was great being with you today, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Ricky Skaggs, recorded in 2003. His new album, "Mosaic," features Christian songs. Heres a track from that.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. SKAGGS: (Singing) Naked, alone, cold cobblestone, they beat him until the blood ran. They brought him to die on a cross up on high, with spikes through his feet and his hands. You can use him, abuse him, mock and accuse him, sell him out for 30 pieces. Betray him, slay him, do the devil's mayhem. But you can't shake Jesus.

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