His Treasure Chest Runneth Over: Ricky Skaggs On His Grammy Nominations and Upcoming Tour
It’s good to be Ricky Skaggs. The young boy who once shared a stage with Bill Monroe is now the head of his own record label, can play just about anything with strings, and has two excellent, wildly different albums—the folk release Songs My Dad Loved and the pop-gospel album Mosaic—nominated for Grammys. He recently took some time to briefly chat with The 9513 about those two records and what’s in store for 2011. A word of advice: you might want to buy your concert tickets now.
First of all, congratulations to you and [Skaggs Family Records artists] Cherryholmes on your Grammy nominations.
Yeah, [I’m] pretty excited about that. This is the first time that I’ve been nominated in two different categories. I’ve never been nominated in the Folk Music category before; that’s a new genre, kinda, for me. And I never thought I would ever get a Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album of the Year nomination, so that was pretty wild. I don’t know; God’s just good. It’s amazing to see how people have responded to Mosaic; it’s just incredible.
Mosaic is so unlike any other record you’ve done before in terms of the style of music you’re playing. What inspired you to make a pop record like this?
I think it was Gordon Kennedy’s demos that he sent me. I heard these songs, but I heard beyond the songs and beyond the lyrics. I heard a sound in the music; I heard marketplace music, you know, a street sound…I didn’t hear it as a church record; I didn’t hear it as a gospel record. I know it’s a Christian record as far as its lyrical content, but the songs are so well-crafted and so well-written that they don’t hold you over Hell with a rotten stick, but they do bring a sort of mirror imaging—you know, of looking at yourself in the mirror. I just heard [the record] being different, you know?
There were some songs I could hear myself singing, and there were some songs that I couldn’t hear myself singing. I just couldn’t do it. Yet, I loved the music and the songs, so I was willing to give it a shot. It was me and two or three other people in the studio, so I thought, “Well, if I blow it and bomb or don’t do a very good job, there’s only three other people who ever heard it, and they’ll forgive me, so it won’t be a big deal.” (laughs) I started hearing myself singing songs like “My Cup Runneth Over” and “You’ll Find God,” and now that I look back, I think, “Gosh, why did I ever think that I couldn’t sing that?” But there were some songs on there that were a stretch for me, and even “Mosaic” was a bit of a stretch for me, the chorus especially, with the falsetto and the Beatle-y sounding melody…it was a little different for me. Although I loved it, and really liked my voice on it; I just wasn’t sure if I could really do it. But Gordon is a great producer and a great encourager. He’s got great ears and a great knowledge of how to say something and how to phrase a line and really make it work. It’s real good having the songwriter there on hand while you’re trying to sing his songs. It’s a little bit intimidating, but he never made it feel intimidating. He always made it feel like [I] could do this. It was great to have him.
You’ve got some excellent guest artists on the record: Peter Frampton, George Beverly Shea, and your kids, plus you credit God in the liners [for providing the thunder on “Fire From the Sky”] with the other musicians, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.
(laughs) We wanted to give credit where credit was due. I don’t think anyone else can create that sound. You can make sound effects like that, but to make real thunder, well, that’s not our department. We had George Beverly Shea, who was 101 years old at the time; he’ll be 102 in January. He’s still singing, and we drove over to North Carolina and did a field recording with him at his house. My daughter [Molly] showed up, and what a beautiful voice she has! She did so great.
I was impressed with her. Will she be recording on her own in the future?
Molly just has her own sound. It sounds something like me, but it sounds something like her mother [Sharon White], too. It’s really great to hear people respond to her voice. I’d love to see her and [son] Luke both do some records, together or separate. They certainly could, talent-wise. I hope they would, someday. They play in a couple bands over in North Carolina…Luke plays in a band called Songs of Water…they’re out with us right now doing Christmas shows. This weekend we’ll be down in Covington, Louisiana, doing two shows. We get excited for this time of year when we get to travel and play Skaggs Family Christmas [shows].
On the opposite side of the spectrum from Mosaic is Ricky Skaggs Solo: Songs My Dad Loved, where you play all the instruments and do all the singing. Was it your original intention to release two such different records back to back?
Songs My Dad Loved came out just a little too late for the Grammy voting cutoff, almost two years ago, so we had to wait for another cycle to come through to put it in for nominations. This may be the first time that I’ve had two albums in the Grammys—I think it probably is. Maybe not; there may have been something else I was involved in. It’s a really good record and I’d love to see it win for my dad. He passed away in 1996 and I really miss him a lot. He was such a great man and played a very vital role in my musical journey. He got me started on the right foot and really worked with me and spent time with me. He was just a great dad, a great example.
You started playing mandolin when you were five years old. What is your first memory of being exposed to country and bluegrass music as a child?
My first memories are of my mom and dad singing. My mother was a radio listener; she loved hearing country music on the radio. Back in those days you could hear country and bluegrass on the same station. You could hear Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers, but you could also hear George Jones, Patsy Cline, Webb Pierce, Ray Price—singers like that, all on the same station. It was a great way to grow up. [Radio] didn’t box me in with just one style of music like it does today.
I’ve always loved diversity. God is a diverse god. He’s very creative, and I think He created us to be creative. I think He wants us to be creative. That’s the thing I love about music: there’s so much music out there. My iPod is full of all kinds of different music, and my kids have helped me with that a lot because they listen to a lot of different music.
You’ve been in the music industry for several decades, had commercial success and been on the outskirts of things. What’s next for you as an artist? Will you be recording with Kentucky Thunder again in the future?
I have no idea. I wish I could give you a really good answer! (laughs) Someone asked me the other day, “Are you going to do Mosaic II?” Gordon said “We may do one called More-saic.” It’s hard to tell. I love working with Gordon. I love his heart and I love his musical mind. We may do some more stuff in the studio together; I hope we can. To say that I’m going to go back now and just do another bluegrass record next—I don’t think that’s where my heart is right now. I love bluegrass and I’m going to continue playing it—as a matter of fact, we’re doing a tour this next year called “Treasure Chest.” There’s Scripture about a wise man who goes into his treasure chest and pulls out things old and new. We want to go out and do the old country hits from the ’80s, we want to do Kentucky Thunder’s blazing bluegrass, and we want to do songs from Mosaic as well. That’s “things old and new” to me. I think fans will really love the fact that I’m taking a full country band out on the road to do “(Honey) Open That Door,” “You’ve Got a Lover,” “I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could,” “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown,” “Uncle Pen,” “Highway 40 Blues,” and things like that. We’d be able to do those with the country sound and then do the “blazing bluegrass” that we’ve been known for since ’97, and then do those new songs from Mosaic. I think it’s going to be a great show, a great tour, and people are getting really excited about it, so we’re excited about it. I think it’s going to be fun for us to do some different music for a change.
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