Ricky Skaggs: Music is a cleansing; it's life

Ricky Skaggs: Music is a cleansing; it's life

Ricky Skaggs is not old -- he'll turn 59 in July -- but his actual chronological years belie the elder statesman status he's achieved in country, bluegrass, gospel and neo-traditional music. Rare talent, a bevy of stories, an enthusiastic attitude and a passion for performing have a lot to do with it, but it also has a little to do with the fact that of his 58 years, 53 have been spent playing music.

Given his first mandolin at the age of five, by six he sang onstage with Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe, and the next year appeared on the Opry, as well as alongside Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on their Martha White variety show. In keeping with this trend, before long he and friend Keith Whitley would be invited to join the band of bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley, and by young adulthood, Skaggs would be already recognized as a master in both bluegrass and mainstream country music, having first performed as a member of Emmylou Harris' Hot Band and later as a solo artist. Today, he has countless Grammy and Country Music Association Awards to his name -- many more no doubt yet to come -- and has established his own label, Skaggs Family Records.

As testament to his flexibility as an artist, Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder are set to take the stage at the Dakota Jazz Club tonight (it appears his Friday night performance in Cannon Falls may be sold out). The band will undoubtedly treat us both to tunes off their upbeat September 2012 album, Music to My Ears, as well as some older songs made famous by Ricky Skaggs and by others. We caught up with Skaggs by phone -- we in wintry Minnesota, he in springtime Tennessee -- and chatted about his record, the Father of Bluegrass, and the, uh... curative properties of ham?

See also:
Ten essential Bill Monroe facts on the 101st birthday of the father of bluegrass

Gimme Noise: Can you tell us about your new album, Music to My Ears? How did you come up with the title?

Ricky Skaggs: I get a lot of songs sent to me... the office gets flooded with songs and CDs. I have a Doctorate of Arts degree from Berklee College in Boston, so I go up there pretty frequently. I got a CD from a guy who's a professor up at Berklee in the songwriting department, and he and a couple gals from Nashville had written this song, ["Music to My Ears"]. I really, really loved it, and thought it really said something and was something that I really wanted to record some day. But at the time, I just didn't have a project to put it on. It's not a real heavy gospel song; it certainly has a gospel message, but it's not just all about the gospel necessarily. It's about the power of music and what music does, and what music is. So when I recorded a gospel record called Mosaic, it just didn't seem to fit on that so I dragged it into a folder and kept it on my computer, knowing that someday I was going to record it. When I was finding material for the new record I dragged that one out along with some others, [and] had about fifteen choices of things I wanted to record. So we worked this one up, and it just felt really good in the studio when we recorded it. We were needing a title for the record; I had a list of songs we had recorded, and I started looking down the titles. When my eyes fell on "Music to My Ears," I thought, you know, that is the title of the record, because this music that I play is such music to my heart, and to my ears.

But you know, I love all kinds of music. It's not just bluegrass or country or gospel. So I think when you're a musician and an artist, music is a cleansing. It's life. And it's a way of life for me. I've gotta have it every day. It's not like a drug or medicine... [though] maybe it is good medicine. It certainly has always been a very, very big part of my life, and now for the last 40 years it's been a vocation, it's been what I make my living from, and I've been playing it since I was five years old -- and I'm 58 -- so 53 years to be piddling around music is a long, long time. That's half a lifetime.

Your music seems so often informed by your faith, and incorporates religious themes, but it's also upbeat and fun. How do you reconcile sometimes heavy topics with levity, and make them accessible and joyful?

All through the Scriptures, God is solemn, there's no doubt about it. He is serious about what He's serious about, but He's not some mean old person, or mean-spirited person. There's scripture about God laughing. There are scriptures about Jesus singing... I've come to have such joy in my faith, and peace in my heart, that I feel like a lot of the music that we do really reflects the joyful side of God, the playful side of God, and the loving side of God that loves to be around His kids, just like I love being around my kids, as a father. And I think once you know God as a father, it really does take on a whole new meaning. It makes you feel so much more connected, and you know, there's a serious side to fathers, too, but there's security in that, in knowing the seriousness of God as well.

I just have a different perspective of God, and have such a love for Jesus in my heart that it just kind of comes out in everything that I sing and play, even though all the songs are not heavy lyrics, in gospel. I can sing what I consider a secular song, or a marketplace song, something that really doesn't have lyrics in it about God or about the Gospel, but I think God is family. He loves family, and He loves fun, and He loves people. So I think when we sing songs of people, person-to-person, I think God's right in the middle of that.


So on a less heady side - in reference to the song title from the same album, can you explain to us how it is that "You Can't Hurt Ham?"

[Laughs.] Oh my goodness. Well, it was a story about Bill Monroe. And Mr. Monroe was a very funny man. He probably didn't think he was funny.

I have a hard time believing he was funny.

Very stoic. But he had a funny side, and he loved to laugh and he would, if he knew you. There were times [he] was a very serious kind of guy, but I got to know him more in his latter years, where he kind of loosened up a bit. On the way to creating bluegrass music, he stumbled on the roots of rockabilly, and I feel like that's one of the reasons they put him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, because, you know his version of "The Rocky Road Blues" [was] an early, early sound, long before Bill Haley came out with "Rock Around the Clock" -- I mean, it was just a dead rip-off of Bill Monroe's groove with the slap bass, and the whole sound of the record, you know Bill Monroe did it probably 15, 20 years earlier. But you know, he had a light-hearted side, especially if you weren't afraid of him.

I think a lot of times people like to see other people [be] fearful around you. I don't ever want people to be afraid of me. And maybe Mr. Monroe didn't necessarily want people to be afraid of him; I think he wanted respect, but you don't need to grow respect out of fear. In the generation he grew up in, in the Depression, it was a whole different way of life, different time.

But he had a lot of great sayings. And he was just real, real hungry one night, late out on the road, and there was no place to eat. So he said that he was really desiring something to eat, and the banjo player had some old ham biscuits, that were a day or so old. And Mr. Monroe said, "Well, bring me them biscuits. You know, you can't hurt ham." Like, no shelf life on ham -- you don't have to refrigerate it. It was just a funny statement that me and Gordon Kennedy ended up writing a song about. When we do it on the road, we explain a little bit about the durability of cured pork, and Mr. Monroe's desire to have something to eat late at night when everything was closed up. So it's a fun song.

On the topic of things we've heard Bill Monroe has said, he was known to say "That ain't no part of nothin'" when talking about newer bands that weren't living up to his standards, or whatever he meant by it. So looking at a lot of the new up and comers like, say, Mumford and Sons, who are bringing their take on bluegrass to newer, younger audiences, what do you suppose Bill Monroe would say about that?

When I go back and look at what kind of music Bill Monroe came out of, he and his brother Charlie Monroe had a very, very successful duet team, just the two of them, and Bill played mandolin, Charlie played guitar, and they were big stars in the '30s, and sold a lot of records. His background was old time fiddle music and mandolin... Knowing his background in old time music, in the old time singing and songs, if you think about the real old pure tradition of old time music, and then you [compare it to the music of] 1946 and '47 and '48, and the kind of music that Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt [brought] when they became members of his band in those formative years of bluegrass, that could've been from another planet as far as music was concerned. It was brand new, it was cutting edge. It was a new sound, it was fresh as can be. There were a lot of new lyrics, playing new solos, playing backup fills... I mean, they were writing this stuff as they went.

So for him to have said, "You ain't playing it like I do," or, you know, if he said, "That ain't no part of nothing," you know, that didn't necessarily refer to bluegrass. I do know one time he did say about newgrass music that he hated that, you know, but I think it was kind of a love/hate thing, because I don't think he hated the kids. He just didn't like rock and roll music infiltrating its way into bluegrass, and that was one of the things that the newgrass revival was doing at that time.

His generation and what he did and the doors that he opened and the groundwork that he laid, the foundation stones that he laid in music, has caused everybody that has come after him to build up on that foundation, and I think the foundations are sure and firm, and I think there's room for the Punch Brothers. There's room for Alison Krauss. There's room for Sam Bush. There's room for groups that are not bluegrass, that kind of get brought into this because of the acoustic nature of it. Groups like Old Crow Medicine Show, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I think a lot of the out-of-the-camp music gets kind of brought into this. I don't think there's a problem with it. I know as a father now and as a leader and elder in the music, I certainly don't take offense to it. I feel like my call with the music I'm doing is to try to do what I can to just always continue to shore up foundations [Monroe] laid. We did a record called Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass 1946-47, the two years that Flatt and Scruggs were in the band and they were creating all this new sound. I feel like the more these foundations are shored up, the more experimentation that some of the younger groups can do when they come into it. And I honor it, and bless them to do it. And they might be able to turn bluegrass music on to people that I would never have a chance to.

But saying that, I still do things with Bruce Hornsby, and he and I have a new record coming out in August. And I've done things with Jack White and the Raconteurs, and Barry Gibb... so I'm always looking for ways to bring people into my sandbox, and play with me. And if I need to go out of my sandbox to play with them, I can do it, and hop right back into mine when I need to. It's a great honor, and music is music, and styles are styles, and I know what I love to play and I know what I play well, and there are probably some styles of music that I would really have a hard time playing. We've raised our children that way, and gosh they're playing everything.

Tell us a little about your band Kentucky Thunder, and what we can expect out of your Minneapolis appearance at The Dakota?

They're just the greatest band, they play everything. I know we're playing a jazz club, so I'm sure we'll do a Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli tune called "The Minor Swing" - you know we always love playing that, it's a lot of fun. They've won a bunch of awards, and I'm really proud of them. They're all just fine, fine musicians and singers. So it's gonna be a great night - we're gonna have a lot of fun. I love telling the history and the stories about bluegrass, and we'll bring a little Southern ham with us.

Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder play tonight at the Dakota Jazz Band, 7 and 9 p.m., $35-60. Click here.

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