From Country Boy to Kentucky Traveler: An Interview with Ricky Skaggs

Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. | August 28th, 2013

rickyskaggsOne of bluegrass’ most beloved artists, Ricky Skaggs has lived a blessed life, playing with Bill Monroe (when Skaggs was only six years old), Ralph Stanley, J.D. Crowe and the New South, Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, and starting his own short-lived band, Boone Creek, which featured a young Vince Gill. In 1982, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry–at that time, he was the youngest member to be inducted. Now, Skaggs adds to his long list of musical accolades and accomplishments an inspiring memoir, written with Eddie Dean, Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music, in which he takes the reader on a grand tour of his life in bluegrass and country. It’s a story that begins in Skaggs’ boyhood, when he was presented with his first mandolin: “I put my hands around the neck, my first feel of wood and steel together. I’ve never forgotten that feeling. In a way, it was almost spiritual…Dad showed me three basic chords—G, C, and D…Then he stepped aside and let me go to it…When I first heard the sound it could make, my heart leapt inside me. Once I held that mandolin in my hands, nothing was ever the same.”

Engine 145 caught up with Skaggs in the middle of his book tour, as he was traveling from Virginia Beach to Roanoke. 

Why did you decide to write this book now?

Well, I really didn’t want to get any older before I set all this down. About ten years ago, another publisher approached me and asked me if I’d be interested in writing an autobiography, but I was just really busy back then and didn’t have time to devote to it. Then, about three years ago, HarperCollins came to me and asked me if I’d be interested in writing my memoir, and it seemed like the right time. I worked hard on it for a couple of years; missed a few deadlines here and there, but the folks at Harper were gracious and worked with me. You know, I feel like ten years ago it just wasn’t the right time for me to do this. So many things—good and bad—have happened over these years. I started the label—Skaggs Family Records—and had the chance to produce some great artists, toured and worked on my own most recent album, Music to My Ears, and just celebrated 31 years as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Of course, I lost some dear friends, too, over the past few years: Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and Levon Helm. Now that the book’s done I’m so proud to see it.

This autobiography is as much about your Mom and Dad as it is about you. What do you recall as your Dad’s most memorable quality? Your Mom’s?

Well, I think so, too. Dad and Mom were both great Christian people. My Dad was much more reserved than Mom; she was very funny and kept things lively around the house, even when times would sometimes get a little hard. My Dad was really easy going; he never got in a hurry about anything. He always served others; if a neighbor called him at 3 a.m. with a busted water pipe, my Dad would be right over there to help him fix it. My Dad loved music, and he really loved playing it. He wanted you to learn something the right way, and I can still remember him telling me “you’ve about got it, you’re almost there, just keep working on it” when he was teaching me a new song.

My Mom was happy and giving; she was a hard worker; she had so much to do to keep the house going: feeding us, doing the wash, washing the walls of the house–I mean, who does that anymore?. She was a woman of prayer, and she taught me to pray and to believe in the Bible, to believe that every word of it is true. My Mom was a great singer—the first time I ever sang harmony was with her, when I was three—and a great songwriter. Probably the one that got recorded most was “All I Ever Loved Was You”; Keith Whitley and I recorded it and so did Ralph Stanley.

What’s the writing process like for you?

Well, with this book, I didn’t really stick to any kind of schedule or have any kind of approach. I knew I had some deadlines, and I worked on it every time I could. You know, I’m not known as a great songwriter, but more as singer. When I need some instrumentals, I’m either writing something new that sounds old or working on something that has roots in the past to make it new. With instrumentals I’m always toying with what hits me at the time. For example, the song “New Jerusalem” off my Music to Ears album just sort of came to me. Five or six years ago, every tune I was writing or playing around with had a Celtic feel to it; I just couldn’t get enough of it; Celtic music is one of the foundation stones for bluegrass.

You say in the book that “I’m a bridge to the past and the future both.” Can you talk about that?

You know, I’ve got the best job in the world. I get to play with the best people in the world. I’ve always tried to be open to music, and I thank my Dad for encouraging that openness. When I was a teenager, I was listening to The Hollies, The Beatles, The Everly Brothers, The Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, and Bill Monroe. But I’ve got a certain type of music in my roots, in my musical DNA, and I think of myself as a carrier for old time music, and I’m proud of it. I encourage young kids to listen to it and play it; it’s important to teach them about this kind of music and its heritage. Still, I love the fact that I can put my hands out and welcome people in. I’ve had the chance to play with Jack White, Ray Charles, and I just played the other day with Tower of Power. I’m doing some more work with Barry Gibb, who has a great voice, and Bruce Hornsby and I just released Cluck Ol’ Hen, which is a live album of some songs we cut on our earlier album together but which includes a bunch that weren’t on that album.

What will readers be surprised to learn about Ricky Skaggs when they read the book?

There are not a lot of new revelations here, but I think many people might surprised to learn just how long I’ve been in this music business. A lot of my fans think of my career as starting in the early ’80s, but they may be shocked to find out that I was on the stage when I was six, when I played mandolin with Bill Monroe at a show in a nearby town; when I was seven, the Skaggs Family band played on the Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree.


  1. BRUCE
    August 30, 2013 at 12:33 am

    Not just a great entertainer and important figure in the country music genre, but a great human being.

  2. Luckyoldsun
    August 30, 2013 at 4:09 am

    What’s with the hair?

  3. Barry Mazor
    August 30, 2013 at 8:51 am

    They MAY be shocked to learn that he was named after Ricky Ricardo of I Love Lucy Show. (Not kidding.) Maybe if his folks’ read credits he’d have been Desi. Desi Skaggs.

  4. Arlene
    August 30, 2013 at 10:24 am

    Obviously, he’s an extraordinary musician. However, his is the only concert I’ve ever walked out of, and that was because he had continuously engaged in religious proselytizing throughout the course of a set that lasted well over an hour. (I don’t mind one or two remarks, but I don’t want to hear the full sermon interspersed between alsmost every number.) That experience allowed me to empathize for the first time with the feelings of friends with different political beliefs than my own who have “trouble” fully enjoying a Steve Earle or Bruce Springsteen concert. I tend to think that artists should say whatever they want during a concert and fans who have “problems” with their comments, should avoid live performances, and stick with buying their recorded music. That’s what I’ve done with Ricky Scaggs.

  5. TX Music Jim
    August 30, 2013 at 11:08 am

    I’ve been to many a steve earle show and his political rants do not take away from my enjoymnet of the gig. Would love to see Ricky play and will what does his spirtual beliefs and his touting of them have to do with anyone not enjoying the perfermance.

  6. Arlene
    August 30, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    @ TX MUSIC JIM: “What does his spirtual beliefs and his touting of them have to do with anyone not enjoying the perfermance.”

    Call me strange– I don’t enjoy being told that I’m going to hell because I haven’t accepted Jesus into my life.

    (In fairness, I last saw Ricky Scaggs in concert in the mid 1980s. I’m unsure if he still makes such exhortations during his shows; I am sure that many Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, etc. are bluegrass fans.)

  7. Leeann Ward
    August 30, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    I haven’t been to a Skaggs show, but I have seen him on extreme evangelical television programs in the past decade. I have to agree with Arlene, but it cuts both ways for me. I don’t want to preached to by either side at concerts. A remark here and there is okay, but anything beyond that would make me stick to just listening to their albums if I’m a fan of the music. I love Ricky Skaggs’ music and own all of his albums (I believe), but I’d be nervous about going to his concert, because I’d ate to have that taste in mouth if he did rant about religion or politics. The same goes for somebody like Steve Earle.

  8. nm
    August 30, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    Arlene, he still does it. Not at every show, but often enough that it’s well to be aware before showing up to hear him. Except in Nashville, where he will go on at length about how glad he is to be back in Nashville away from those other places with the strange people. Evidently, people who aren’t just like him frighten him, which is sad.

    Having gone to many Ricky Skaggs shows and many Steve Earle shows, I wouldn’t compare them. Earle sometimes tosses in political remarks in between songs that I find similar to Skaggs’s usual comment that he’s always been glad that bluegrass music has room for a gospel message, and I’m OK with both of those things. But I’ve never heard Earle go on an extended rant (nothing longer than three sentences, honest), whereas Skaggs is liable to start preaching about how almost everyone in the audience is bound for hell and go on for several minutes. I’ve never walked out on one of his shows but I’ve come close, and I mostly don’t go to hear him live any more, for that reason. (One good way to avoid a sermon, btw, is go to see him when he’s going to have Andy Statman playing with him.)

  9. Leeann Ward
    August 30, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    I think, for me, the difference between someone like Steve Earle/Todd Snider being political and Ricky Skaggs is that we all know that Earle and Snider are political/liberal minded from their songs. We know exactly where they stand and we can take it or leave it as we see fit. With Skaggs, it seems a little different, because his songs aren’t overtly conservative or hellfire and brimstone religious. So, it could be easy to be taken off guard at a Skaggs concert if he starts engaging in extreme preaching. I can bet that many people have no idea that they’ll be preached at or berated if they go to a Skaggs concert; they just think they’ll be hearing some fine music.

  10. Leeann Ward
    August 30, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    And, yes, I’m aware that he sings a lot of religious songs, but most of them are really pretty standard fare, nothing that I can think of that is extreme as far as religion goes.

  11. Luckyoldsun
    August 30, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    This is fascinating. I had no idea that Skaggs carries on like that at his concerts. I still would want to see him–though if he actually said from the stage that most of the audience is bound for hell, I might be tempted to yell back–like that Saturday Night Live character–“See you in hell!.”

  12. Leeann Ward
    August 30, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    This is fascinating. I had no idea that Skaggs carries on like that at his concerts.

    Yup, my point exactly.

  13. Barry Mazor
    August 30, 2013 at 11:55 pm

    Ricky discusses having done that sort of in concert preaching (or haranguing) and how his feelings about doing it changed, in the memoir.

  14. Fishburn
    September 3, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Thanks for the interview Mr. Carrigan, and thanks for the comments folks. I’ve never heard Ricky Skaggs in concert, but like the LP’s. Ooops!

    Will have a look at the book. Wish the interview had been longer.

  15. TX Music Jim
    September 5, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    Like I said I’ve never seen Ricky live but given his open Christian stance some sort of comments in that direction don’t suprise me. I’ve never seen Todd go off on a rant. Steve I have. However, last time I saw him maybe 9 months ago it was a very rant free even political comment free show. Still do not care if I get what I went for, the music; I’ll let the other stuff slide. FYI, I saw a young band that have a lot of bluegrass influences in their music called The Dirty River Boys recently at a festival and man those kids got chops.

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