One of the most fascinating things about singer, multi-instrumentalist, and bandleader Ricky Skaggs is that he’s been able to reinvent himself constantly over a 50-plus year career. A master of the mandolin, guitar, banjo and fiddle, Skaggs was adept enough to play with the legendary bluegrass titan Bill Monroe at age six, and the early years of his professional career saw him working with Flatt & Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, The Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe, and Emmylou Harris.
Skaggs took a detour from bluegrass into mainstream country music in the early 1980s, scoring 12 No. 1 hits, including “Highway 40 Blues,” “Cajun Moon,” “Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown” and “Lovin’ Only Me.” From 1980-1990, Skaggs ultimately landed a total of 26 singles on the country charts, won four Grammys and took home a combined 15 Country Music Association and Academy Of Country Music awards. It’s this phase of his career that the CMA’s were probably thinking about when they recently made him one of its three 2018 inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Skaggs says he was shocked by his induction, thinking there were many others who deserved to get in that weren’t already, mentioning The Stanley Brothers specifically.
“It comes out of a place of humility rather than wanting them other than me,” he says. “I’m very, very thankful to get in, and I’m excited about it. I’m actually about to go for my first meeting about the induction ceremony in October, so I’ll know a little more what’s going to happen then. It’s a great, wonderful thing.”
Almost as quickly as he says he thinks others were more deserving, however, Skaggs says the idea of getting into the Hall of Fame certainly occurred to him from time to time.
“It was in the back of my mind,” he says, “and a mind is a terrible thing, as Eddie Murphy once said. Nobody can really know for sure though. I didn’t know until (the Country Music Association’s CEO) Sarah Trahern spoke to me back in January. We were going to be leaving for Europe for a couple of weeks and she wanted to tell me before I left.”
Skaggs’ class also includes singer Dottie West and fiddle player Johnny Gimble, who made his legendary name with Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys.
“I was really thankful to go in with Dottie West and Johnny,” Skaggs says. “I’d see Dottie out at the Grand Ole Opry, and Johnny’s family spoke so well of their Dad. That’s always a sign that they’ve been raised by a good man, when sons and daughters speak well of their Dad.”
That reference to sons and daughters is an important one, because Skaggs returns to that concept during our discussion of the post-country phase of his career. In 1997, Skaggs returned to his roots with the defiantly titled Bluegrass Rules!, an album of dazzling acoustic instrumental interplay with his red-hot band, Kentucky Thunder, and a shining example of Skaggs’ high-lonesome tenor.
Since that album, Skaggs has released nearly 20 albums, won 13 International Bluegrass Music Awards, collaborated with everyone from Jack White to Bruce Hornsby and even formed his own record label, Skaggs Family Records. That label has not only allowed him to explore gospel and pop music on releases like Soldiers Of The Cross and Mosaic, but it’s also helped him remain economically sound in an age where major-label albums don’t go multi-platinum like they used to.
“Record sales nowadays are so minimal that it’s hard to sell the numbers we were all selling back in the ’80s,” he says. “It’s hard to sell product unless you’re the big name like Taylor Swift or Garth or someone like that. So much is downloaded now, but we can still do good music and play the kind of music we really want to play.”
And playing is exactly what Skaggs and his six-piece ensemble Kentucky Thunder are good at. There might not be a better set of players in the bluegrass world right now. In fact, they’re so good that they can often dispense with a set list and simply react to what their audience is telling them.
“If there’s a lot of people up dancing and having a big time, we may have tendency to play a few more fiddle tunes and uptempo songs and shy away from the slow things,” he says. “We go with the spirit. We see the audience responding to things, and we go in that direction a little bit more.”
Skaggs sees his band not just as a great ensemble, but as a training ground for young, talented musicians. Kentucky Thunder is a real point of pride for him, and that’s where the father-and-children references come back into play.
“Most of these guys would tell you I’ve been like a father to them, and I don’t mind that,” he says. “(Standup bassist and vocalist) Scott Mulvahill recently left the band, and he’s an incredible soloist. He can go out with a bass fiddle and do a whole show and keep you mesmerized. It’s pretty incredible to see his talent. But he loves coming back home here and doing this with us and that’s the true mark of a father that loves his kids.”