By Brit Greenquist
No one could accuse Ricky Skaggs of being prideful. The first time I met him was backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. He’d just finished up a vibrant set on the stage he’s been playing on since his adolescence, yet his presence was one of pure humility. At the time, I merely knew him as a talented bluegrass musician. It wasn’t until later that I learned he’d been playing since he was a small child, picking up the mandolin at age five. Over the course of his career, Ricky has earned over 14 Grammys, 8 CMA awards and at the time of his induction, he was the youngest person to become a member of the Opry.
However, sitting down to coffee with him is like hanging out with your favorite uncle. Ricky’s zeal for life is contagious, and you can’t help but be captivated by his colorful tales, in which the main characters are individuals like Bill Monroe (the godfather of bluegrass), Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Carl Perkins. For Ricky, this isn’t name-dropping, it’s sharing stories of people he’s deeply cared for, and worked with, most of his life.
Bluegrass is a musical genre that, to this pop-driven generation, is long gone. It’s the music of our grandparents and great-grandparents. It conjures images of families sitting around radios, rather than televisions. Yet Ricky Skaggs firmly attests that bluegrass is alive and well, filled with young people craving a taste of history — carefully eyeing Skaggs’ famed mandolin licks in hopes of emulating them one day. More than just bluegrass, Ricky has hope in a future for all music. One where the songwriters and artists are at the top of the totem pole.
“The joy of playing got on me early in my life.” This is how Ricky Skaggs begins his life story as we chat over coffee, something he’s surprisingly knowledgeable about — he loves a good pour over. He walks me through his childhood, how his father was the catalyst that launched him into music, and how he’d play records on a wind up vinyl player, slowing them down so he could memorize the chords. Ricky recounts his first meeting with Bill Monroe when he was a child, describing to me how massive Mr. Monroe seemed to him. A fact I find ironic, as Ricky seems so big to me. Not just because of his natural stature, but because of his undeniably large presence.
“I didn’t come to Nashville to sell records — I hoped I did — but it’s really the joy of the music that keeps my heart interested in it. I feel that now that I’m 62 years old, gray-headed, and I’m looking back at my life, this is the most fruitful time I feel like I’ve ever had. I’m judging fruit as people I’ve influenced, not accolades from man,” Ricky says earnestly. He explains that it’s all about unwrapping your “gift,” that thing we’re all born with, but have to discover for ourselves. “Even receiving a gift you have to open it — it’s usually boxed up. So I feel like you have to open the gift, you see the gift and then you build on the gift. It’s like a muscle, if you don’t use it, it gets weak. A lot of people get a gift, and because of frustrations of the business, of Nashville — you’re hot this week and nobody the next — a lot of people take that so personally. They blame themselves, or other people. Sometimes those things can really trip you up.”
You can feel his sincerity, each word flowing from a real place. He truly cares about the next generation, considering his current band, Kentucky Thunder, is made up of primarily young players. Not to mention Skaggs Family Records, which records and produces many up-and-comers. I ask him about what it’s like trying to make it now, versus when he was starting out — by the time the internet was in every household, Ricky was already an icon on the bluegrass and country music scene.
“We have to work in the conditions we’re given. The world is so small now. We can go around the world from our living room, we can touch people around the world. I think for that part of it, it’s good, but as far as being a songwriter, performer or someone who needs to sell a [musical] product to make a living, it’s really hard,” Ricky says. We discuss the repercussions of Napster, and what streaming did to the music industry.
“I think that’s been difficult because we used to sell thousands of albums to stores, and now it’s all digital. A lot of artists could have 2-3 hits from a CD, and could work 2-3 months a year and that’s all they’d have to do. But now that records are down, you have to tour to pay for the thing… it’s kind of got us all back on the road.” He tells me that because of this reality, it does create a kind of competition because so many artists have to be out on the road working. However, he makes it clear that there’s a silver lining: being on the road is where community is at. That’s where the people are. “The beauty of being on the road is the people you get to interact with, get to know. After the shows I go out and meet the folks and it’s the best part of the day for me.”
I quickly discover that this is a quintessential Ricky trait: uncovering the silver lining in every trial and tribulation in life.
“[The music industry] is such a rat race. Not everyone is going to come to Nashville and be Taylor Swift, but I think there’s creative ways for us to seek getting the music out to people. I think music is something God gave us, it’s a language. I don’t know if it’ll ever be the business that it was for 60 years, of recording, buying, selling, etc. I think technology is moving so fast away from the hard copy of music — artists are taking more ownership.” Ricky himself has done this, he owns almost all of his songs (a rarity for an artist), and he started his own record label that consistently develops innovative ways of getting their artists’ heard.
Ricky’s advice is subtle. He’s of a different generation, and his wisdom isn’t narrowed down into concise bullet points of what you should and shouldn’t do to “make it.” Rather, his beliefs are softer, more romantic, and often delivered in reference to his own personal faith. He tells me, “There’s something about humility that really catches the heart of God. Humility and pride don’t really ying and yang together much. I think when we take the lowly place, God honors us.” Regardless of your personal beliefs, his point resonates. Walking humbly is something you won’t regret, especially as a musician working in a city that’s always looking for the next, big star.
The music industry may be a rat race, but when it comes to bluegrass, Ricky Skaggs is the keeper of the keys.
“When I came to Nashville, I had all this wealth of understanding and this wealth of knowledge, but it [the music] was all from the 1940s. Then I met Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. They were like little birds in a nest with their little mouths open, they wanted to know the music that I knew, the music that I carried. And I thought why would they wanna know that? I didn’t think of the richness that I’d been imparted. I didn’t think of it as wealth. I just thought It was old music, but what a wealth. I drew from that well of creativity, that ancient well. That well is endless. I feel like I am a keeper of the old. I feel like my left foot is in the 40s, 50s, 60s — with artists like Flat Scrubs and Bill Monroe. I knew these people personally. I got to play with them. So when I moved to Nashville, the one person I wanted to honor the most was Mr. Monroe. I wanted to introduce him to my young friends.” And he did. He did it very successfully too. Imparting this historical genre, considered America’s root music, to a whole new generation. Ricky says he has 30s, 20s, teens and even 10-year-olds that are listening and learning.
“History has a place in the future — it is flourishing. The youth is really seeing the realness and the honesty of this music. In the eyes of music row, this kind of music is insignificant. But the internet has made a level playing field for musical genres. I’m really comfortable in being Papa Ricky or Uncle Ricky. I feel like there’s real credence there to continue that. Mr. Monroe in a lot of ways was that. In his 50-60s, he may have seen the younger generation as thieves, but I think he came to know later that his music was given to him to share. We’re sharing this together.”
A legacy is more than awards and accomplishments, as Ricky says, “A legacy is when someone else hears, sees what you’re doing and are moved to do it themselves. I’m moved to seeing that more and more… If I had one thing I could say to any of these young players, it’s to always have a thankful heart, a grateful heart.”
I think what I appreciate most about Ricky is that the knowledge he shares isn’t necessarily strategic, but it is inspirational. It hits your heart, and sends a wave to your brain that says “I too can do this.” His language is a language of dreamers, of creatives, of those seeking to find a place in an industry that isn’t gained by an impressive resume. Instead, the artist must pay his (or her) dues, and find the joy in playing. Even if no one’s listening.
“I didn’t think my career was bad, but I got to the point where I didn’t have a career, my career had me. I sure needed some real illumination to refocus my life, refocus my attention. I needed to simplify my life. I always think of illumination as light. You have to have light to see. I think we can have outside lights and still walk in darkness. ‘I don’t mind you having stuff, but I mind stuff having you,’ I felt like that was the revelation I got. The Lord brought me back to a ground that was rich and replanted me there, so that I could grow and bear much fruit. Now I see it in the lives of all these young musicians. I think the music I have done, in bringing the old school music to the future, that has influenced people. It’s gotten me into places I’d never gotten to go. And the power of forgiveness… If you don’t forgive, you can’t be forgiven — that’s illumination right there.”
Brit Greenquist is a freelance writer & editor with Tapered Magazine and a current Nashville resident.