Three decades ago, when Ricky Skaggs was at the forefront of a new traditionalist movement in country music, a video promoting his “Country Boy” single made the rounds on cable television. It depicted the Lawrence County native escorting his skeptical Uncle Pen around the dance-happy streets and graffiti-laced subways of New York City as the tune’s bluegrass and honky tonk melody affirmed an artist holding true to his musical roots as his commercial fortunes rose.
Perhaps the most arresting aspect of the video was that Skaggs’ uncle was played by bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe.
Fast forward to last month as Skaggs, now as much a mentoring figure to younger artists as Monroe was to him, found himself onstage at the Country Music Association Awards. A newly inducted member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Skaggs executed a three-song, career defining medley — a jubilant reading of the bluegrass standard “Black Eyed Suzie” with his Kentucky Thunder band, a quick picking rendition of his 1983 hit “Highway 40 Blues” with Keith Urban and John Osborne and a modern reprise of “Country Boy” with such cross-generational greats as Marty Stuart and Brad Paisley.
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Though presented some 32 years apart, the televised performances serve as bookends to a commercially and critically lauded career that began in bluegrass, steered into country before landing back in bluegrass. In fact, Skaggs’ return to Rupp Arena this weekend as part of a bill with Alabama and fellow home state heroes The Kentucky Headhunters, will be devoted exclusively to bluegrass.
“From early on, we’ve all participated in something we all love,” Skaggs said “We can call it bluegrass or we can call it country but it’s still country music. It’s people music, it’s folk music, it’s mountain music, it’s hillbilly. It’s all the words we want to call it. That’s what has always driven my heart. It’s old time music — Eastern Kentucky music, certainly.”
“If I could find a voice that, to me, would define bluegrass, I would choose his,” said Vince Gill, a longtime friend of Skaggs and, briefly, a bandmate in the mid ‘70s, Central Kentucky based bluegrass troupe Boone Creek.
“That’s in my lifetime, of course. I’m sure everybody will say, ‘No, it’s (Bill) Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, and that’s all true. But in my lifetime and my impact, Ricky was the gold standard. We’ve been friends for over 40 years, and still are to this day. We see each other at the Opry all the time. He feels like family to me.”
A quick refresher on the giants whose footsteps Skaggs followed as his own musical voice developed: He sang and played onstage with Monroe (who Skaggs still refers to as Mr. Monroe) at the age of 6, joined Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys as a teenager and served in the Country Gentlemen before becoming part of J.D. Crowe’s groundbreaking debut lineup of the New South in 1975. Boone Creek prefaced an extended tenure in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band before his own career took over.
“I just admire Ricky as a musician,” said Greg Martin, longtime lead guitarist of the Kentucky Headhunters. “He’s a guy who has played with everybody — Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley. He’s even played with Ry Cooder. He’s played with Bruce Hornsby. He’s done everything. He’s one of these guys who is a treasure to our state.
“His music, it’s so deep. It’s as deep as Muddy Waters in its own way. When bluegrass is done right, it’s incredibly soulful. And Ricky goes there. He’s got it. It’s like going to church when you go hear Ricky Skaggs.”
“My mom and dad loved Mr. Monroe and his music,” Skaggs said. “And of course, the Stanley Brothers were one of the big favorites around our house. My mom loved hearing the Stanley Brothers. They just had a sound she could really resonate with. She sang tenor with dad like Ralph sang tenor with (brother) Carter. When I met Ralph, ‘I said, you sing just like my mom.’ I’m sure he loved hearing that.”
But what Skaggs’ music constitutes today is a legacy, something the Country Music Hall of Fame induction and the CMA telecast confirmed. Watching the latter, one couldn’t help but think that younger country audiences taken with contemporary Nashville sounds weren’t just getting an initial listen to Skaggs that night. They were also witnessing live bluegrass and roots country for the first time.
“Most of these young kids don’t have a clue who Jimmie Rodgers or Clyde Moody or even Mr. Monroe were. They don’t know anything about this music. They only know, maybe, from Garth (Brooks) forward. It may even be more from Jason Aldean on. So I feel a bit of responsibility. I feel like I’m in a place where I want to teach. I want to tell people these stories. I want to tell them that I had friendships with Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers, that I actually knew those people very well.
“I’m 64 now and very gray. I’ve still got plenty of hair, but I’m very gray. But I think sometimes that grayness, and just the years, gives me favor with young people. I’m a connection. I’m a bridge, somehow, for them to walk back into bluegrass, to walk back into the traditions of country.”
If you go:
Alabama/Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder/The Kentucky Headhunters
When: 6:30 p.m. Dec. 7
Where: Rupp Arena, 430 W. Vine
Call: 859-233-3535, 800-745-3000