Ricky Skaggs kicked off his career in an unusual way.
His first onstage performance was with legendary bluegrass musician Bill Monroe, who was performing near Skaggs’ hometown in Kentucky. Skaggs had developed a reputation in the area for playing the mandolin and singing, and Monroe’s audience insisted the “Father of Bluegrass” let the young musician have a turn on stage. Monroe consented, and discovered moments later the mandolinist at large had just turned 6 years old.
Within a year Skaggs was playing on national television with Flatt & Scruggs. Over the next four decades, he released platinum-selling records like “Country Boy” and “Highways & Heartaches,” received multiple Grammy and Country Music Association awards and teamed up with artists like Bruce Hornsby to push the boundaries of bluegrass music.
Skaggs, who is coming to the Oxford Performing Arts Center June 21 with his band, Kentucky Thunder, spoke with The Star about his team-up with Hornsby, the versatility of bluegrass music and his role as a guide for new musicians.
Q: You and Bruce Hornsby do this magical cover of Rick James’ “Superfreak.” Is there any chance we’re going to see you and Bruce on tour again?
A: We try to work as many dates as we can. He’s touring with five or six different bands this year — he’s got his band, the Noisemakers, then he has solo dates going out just as Bruce Hornsby, doing smaller venues. He’s got way too many things going on this year, he said.
Q: That’s too bad. You’ve got this really interesting mesh of pop and bluegrass and it really works, like when you’re playing a bluegrass version of “The Way It Is.”
A: The thing about Bruce is, as much as he loves playing with Kentucky Thunder, playing bluegrass stuff, he equally loves playing with Pat Metheny, the jazz stuff. That’s right up his alley. When he comes with us and he’s playing solos, some of the solos he’s playing you’d think he’s playing with Pat — it’s jazz, but it works with us, with our style of music. He doesn’t have to say to himself, “I can’t go there because it wouldn’t be good for the music,” or think that he’s not respecting bluegrass because he plays a certain style. I never try to hold the music back. When it’s flowing and there’s a spirit of music, let it go, let it fly. We do want to do more things together.
Q: Some folks think of “bluegrass” as an old style of music, but projects like you two doing “Cluck Ol’ Hen” show off its versatility. Is it hard to convince audiences that bluegrass is changing and growing?
A: When you hear Nickel Creek and new Alison Krauss and hear Edgar Meyer’s sessions with Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan and Yo-Yo Ma, it’s music beyond the mainstream, it’s music beyond what we’ve heard from the classics like Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs. I think this music really is just about to explode again — I really do think that. I’m at a position now, age-wise, that I’m able to encourage young people as an elder to go back, listen to the roots, get trained and get this music in your head and in your heart, but also let the gift that you have start to really come alive. I feel like that’s part of my role nowadays to have kids go back to the school of that and be educated but, at the same time, take what they do and come up with something of their own.
Q: So you take the influences and run with them?
A: You listen to Mumford and Sons, the Avett Brothers — they’re not what I would consider bluegrass but there’s certainly some elements of bluegrass in their music. Had it not been for bluegrass their music wouldn’t sound the way it does right now. I know they do pull from that stream.
I don’t expect every young act to sound like me or sound like Bill Monroe, although it’d be great to find some young kid out there that really loved that era of ’46 to ’48 and ’50, the early beginnings of bluegrass, and just stay there a while with a fresh approach to that. I think that’d be really cool to see. Everybody kind of wants to be newer than that, wants to live in this century rather than last century, but it’s all still livin.’
Benjamin Nunnally is a freelance writer in Jacksonville. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.