Music News & Reviews

Ricky Skaggs gives his dad his due

NASHVILLE — Ricky Skaggs doesn't mind saying so. Before he was a first-class picker, he was a first-class brat.

The country legend cringes when he remembers his sometimes-petulant attitude as a child in Lawrence County. He'd act up as his father — Hobert Skaggs, a soft- spoken welder and musician — tried to teach him how to play the mandolin.

"I'd get mad and didn't want to play, or I thought I had it right and he'd say I didn't," Skaggs said. "I'd be a smart aleck and say something, and I regretted it so much. Later, I apologized to my dad so much for my strong-headedness."

Now Skaggs, 55, is offering much more than an apology. On his new CD, Songs My Dad Loved, Skaggs pays homage to his late father, who died in 1996. The disc, released last month, is a collection of songs that Hobert Skaggs sang around the house, including Ralph Stanley's Little Maggie and the Louvin Brothers' What Is a Home Without Love?

Skaggs, who has two concert dates in Eastern Kentucky in the coming week, plays every instrument (mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar and piano) and sings every note. He keeps most of the arrangements simple, just as he and his father used to play them.

"My dad never played for a living," Skaggs says. "He could easily have sang or played with Bill Monroe. He was that good. But he wanted to stay with his family and work to where he could be home on the weekends."

As a young man, Hobert Skaggs sang and played guitar in a duo with his brother on mandolin. After his brother died in World War II, Hobert vowed that if any of his kids showed an aptitude for music, he'd buy them an instrument.

Ricky — the second-youngest of four children — displayed that talent. "He bought me a mandolin and showed me three chords," Skaggs said.

They were G, C and D — the basis for dozens of country, bluegrass and folk tunes — and by the time his dad returned home from a welding job in Lima, Ohio, two weeks later, 3-year-old Ricky was playing and singing his little heart out.

Hobert Skaggs was so excited that he went out and bought himself a new guitar (he'd lent his old one to a family friend and had drifted away from music).

"Not only did that start my musical journey, but it kick-started and encouraged a newfound inspiration for him as well," Skaggs said. "He had a reason to play music again."

It didn't take long to see that his son had a gift. By age 6, Skaggs was invited to perform with Bill Monroe. A year later, he was on TV with Flatt & Scruggs.

He went on to play with Ralph Stanley, J.D. Crowe and Emmylou Harris before launching a solo career in 1981. From 1982 to 1989, he had 11 No. 1 country hits.

Skaggs, who has won 14 Grammys and sold millions of records, returned to bluegrass in the 1990s and became one of the genre's leading figures — and one of its most adventurous, working with artists including rock singers Bruce Hornsby, John Fogerty and Jack White (he was recently nominated for the Country Music Association's vocal event of the year for Old Enough, a song with White's rock band the Raconteurs and Ashley Monroe).

"He's a deep musical soul," said Hornsby, who has recorded and toured with Skaggs. "He's an incredibly soulful musician and person.

"People often ask me what is my greatest collaboration in my years in music, and I've always said my deepest collaboration was with the Grateful Dead," Hornsby said. "But now I have to say it is with Ricky Skaggs and the Grateful Dead."

In many ways, Skaggs is living his father's dream, and he's grateful that his dad got to see his success.

But as he has tried to help his own children in music and in life, he has found he's not the teacher his dad was.

"No way," Skaggs says shaking his head, "my dad had the patience of Job."