Ricky Skaggs Biography

Ricky Lee Skaggs, 18 July 1954, Brushey Creek, near Cordell, Kentucky, USA. His father, Hobert, was a welder, who enjoyed playing the guitar and singing gospel songs with Skaggs’ mother, Dorothy. Skaggs later recorded one of her songs, ‘All I Ever Loved Was You’. Hobert returned from a welding job in Ohio with a mandolin for the five-year-old Skaggs, but had to go back before he could show him how to play it; within two weeks, Skaggs had worked it out for himself. In 1959, he was taken on stage during one of Bill Monroe’s concerts and played ‘Ruby’ on Monroe’s mandolin to rapturous applause. At the age of seven, he played mandolin on Flatt And Scruggs’ television show, and then learnt guitar and fiddle.

While working at a square dance with his father, Skaggs met Keith Whitley; they were to form a trio with Whitley’s banjo-playing brother, Dwight, recording bluegrass and gospel shows for local radio. In 1970, they opened for Ralph Stanley, formerly of the Stanley Brothers, who was so impressed that he invited them to join his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys. They both made their recording debuts on Stanley’s Cry From The Cross. The youngsters made two albums together, but Skaggs soon left in 1972, discouraged by the long hours and low pay. Skaggs married Stanley’s cousin and worked in a boiler room in Washington, DC. However, he returned to music by joining the Country Gentlemen, principally on fiddle. Then, from 1974-75, he played in the modern bluegrass band, J.D. Crowe And The New South. He later recorded a duet album with another member of the band, Tony Rice.

Skaggs’ first solo album, That’s It, included contributions from his own parents. He formed his own band, Boone Creek, and recorded bluegrass albums, although they also touched on western swing and honky-tonk. He was then offered a job in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band: ‘Emmy tried to get me to join three times before I went. I wanted to stay in bluegrass and learn as much about the music as I could, but when Rodney Crowell left, I had an incentive to join her because I knew I’d be able to sing a lot.’ From 1977-80, Skaggs encouraged Harris’ forays into traditional country music via her Blue Kentucky Girl, Light Of The Stable and, especially, Roses In The Snow. Although Skaggs had rarely been a lead vocalist, his clear, high tenor was featured on an acoustic-based solo album, Sweet Temptation, for the North Carolina label Sugar Hill Records. Emmylou Harris and Albert Lee were among the guest musicians.

While Skaggs was working on another Sugar Hill album, Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown, Epic Records took an interest in him. He switched to Epic and made his debut on the US country charts with a revival of Flatt And Scruggs’ ‘Don’t Get Above Your Raising’, which he later re-recorded in concert with Elvis Costello. Rolling Stone magazine likened Skaggs’ first Epic release, 1981’s Waitin’ For The Sun To Shine, to Gram Parsons’ Grievous Angel, stating that they both represented turning points in country music. Skaggs was putting the country back into country music by making fresh-sounding records that related to the music’s heritage. As if to prove the point, he had US number 1 country hits by reviving Flatt And Scruggs’ ‘Crying My Heart Out Over You’ and Webb Pierce’s ‘I Don’t Care’. He was the Country Music Association Male Vocalist of the Year for 1982, and became the sixty-first - and youngest - member of the Grand Ole Opry.

Despite the old-time feeling, Skaggs also appealed to rock fans, performing a sell-out concert at London’s Dominion Theatre; it was later released on a live album. Skaggs had played on Guy Clark’s original version of ‘Heartbroken’ and his own recording of the song gave him another country chart-topper. He also completed his Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown, which was released in 1983, after much negotiation, by Epic. Skaggs is a principled performer who leaves drinking or cheating songs to others, but he justified the title track, originally recorded by the Stanley Brothers, by calling it a ‘don’t cheat’ song. Skaggs played on Albert Lee’s first-class solo album Hiding (1979), and he had another number 1 with his own version of Lee’s ‘Country Boy’, although the whimsical lyric must have baffled American listeners. With a revival of Bill Monroe’s ‘Uncle Pen’, Skaggs is credited as being the first performer to top the country charts with a bluegrass song since Flatt And Scruggs in 1963, although he says, ‘‘Uncle Pen’ would not be a bluegrass single according to law of Monroe because there are drums and electric instruments on it.’ Skaggs won a Grammy for the best country instrumental, ‘Wheel Hoss’, which was used as the theme music for his UK BBC Radio 2 series, Hit It, Boys.

In 1981 Skaggs, now divorced, married Sharon White of the Whites. They won the Vocal Duo Of The Year award for their 1987 duet, ‘Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This’. He also recorded a playful duet of ‘Friendship’ with Ray Charles, and says, ‘The people who call me Picky Ricky can’t have met Ray Charles. He irons out every wrinkle. I would sing my lead part and he’d say, “Aw, honey, that’s good but convince me now: sing to your ol’ daddy.”’ Skaggs has worked on albums by the Bellamy Brothers, Rodney Crowell, Exile and Jesse Winchester. Johnny Cash had never previously used a fiddle player until Skaggs worked on Silver.

Skaggs’ busy career suffered a setback when his son Andrew was shot in the mouth by a drug-crazed truck-driver, but returned in 1989 with two fine albums in the traditional mould: White Limozeen, which he produced for Dolly Parton, and his own Kentucky Thunder. 1991’s My Father’s Son was his most consistent album in years, but its poor sales led Columbia Records to drop him from their roster in 1992. He resurfaced on Atlantic Records, releasing two solid albums before expanding his horizons by forming his own Skaggs Family label at the end of the decade. His run of traditional recordings with his Kentucky Thunder band hit a peak in 2006 with the superb Instrumentals, which gave the artist his fourth Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album (Bluegrass Rules!, Ancient Tones and Brand New Strings had previously earned the accolade). The following year Skaggs collaborated with Bruce Hornsby on a highly enjoyable duo album, and also recorded an album with the Whites. He reunited with Kentucky Thunder in 2008 to record a collection of bluegrass classics from the late 40s.

Skaggs is modest about his achievements, feeling that he is simply God’s instrument. He has rekindled an interest in country music’s heritage, and many musicians have followed his lead.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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