BY TOM NETHERLAND SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER
Snow caps the mountain while an inferno fires the enormously musical heart of Ricky Skaggs.
Twenty years after J.D. Sumner declared “Country rocks … but bluegrass rules” on Skaggs’ return to bluegrass via 1997’s “Bluegrass Rules!,” the song-wielding warrior looks back while barreling forth.
Ride along with Kentucky Thunder and its leader on Saturday. Pervaded in substance and renewed commitments to fans and self, Skaggs returns to the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee, as if born again.
“I’ve got a bunch of young rascals coming with me to the Paramount,” said Skaggs, last week from Louisiana. “These boys look up to me like I looked up to Ralph and Mr. Monroe.”
That’s Ralph as in Stanley and Mr. Monroe as in Bill, the father of bluegrass. In the midst of a lifetime of music that’s now well beyond 50 years as a practitioner, Skaggs belongs among bluegrass’ elite band of legends.
“I’ve certainly got the gray hair to prove it,” Skaggs said. “I never really think of (being a legend) as that. I just don’t. I’m 62. I feel like I’ve got a lot of years left.”
Consider Skaggs’ route to greatness. First came the G, C and D chords as taught by his father, Hobert Skaggs. At age 6, he played Monroe’s mandolin in the presence of the master. By age 7, he was on television with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. As a teenager, he and Keith Whitley took their place in Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys band. Add stints with J.D. Crow, Boone Creek and Emmylou Harris. He seemed bound for a lifetime in bluegrass.
But then he went country. A long string of country smashes including “Highway 40 Blues” and Grammy awards won filled the 1980s and ’90s for Skaggs as a leader in country’s new traditionalist movement.
“I knew that I was not going to keep up with Brooks and Dunn or Garth Brooks,” Skaggs said of the principles behind country music’s major change during the 1990s. “The circus, just trying to keep up, I couldn’t do it. I never considered myself an entertainer when it was more about the entertaining and not the songs. I love Garth. He’s a good friend. But I chose a different path.”
Like water in search of the well, Skaggs returned home. He formed Skaggs Family Records, bought the Oak Ridge Boys’ recording studio, took over his career and recorded 1997’s “Bluegrass Rules!”
“I feel like we drove a stake in the ground and took over my claim in bluegrass,” Skaggs said. “I could never take Bill Monroe’s place. I wanted to play bluegrass for a younger generation. I wanted to do my part in keeping bluegrass alive.”
Skaggs was no rank stranger. Grammys kept coming; Skaggs owns 15. Album sales continued. His walls feature paint, platinum and gold.
“I never tried to work for an award. I came to Nashville to play music,” Skaggs said. “I never worked for number one records. I never worked for gold and platinum records. But there are things that come from awards.”
Fans came and stayed. Country and bluegrass stars of yore from Ernest Tubb to Bill Monroe never shied away from a fan in search of an autograph. Tubb famously laid the groundwork that generations of artists followed suit.
“I look forward to going out to the autograph table. I used to dread it,” Skaggs said. “I’ll go on the record now and say it: I just didn’t want to be out there.”
Skaggs said that his loss of weight led to a realization that he needed to repent. That spurred on his change of heart relative to fans, autographs and such.
“It’s all about them,” Skaggs said.
As when he first picked up a mandolin, took to the bluegrass highway, went country, came back and marches onward today — Ricky Skaggs travels along as a work in progress. He loves God, his family, career and music. But rest assured, he loves you, too.
“I feel like when I repented and asked God to forgive me, the love in my heart for Him, my family, for people — it all changed,” Skaggs said. “I hope (fans) get a sense that I’m a humble, down to Earth person.”