Ricky Skaggs Is Proud to Bring the Kentucky Thunder

The state’s bluegrass music legend talks about keeping the picking tradition alive, his early career record sessions in Cincinnati, and why the road goes on and on.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Unless, that is, it sits on the snow white dome of Cordell, Kentucky, native Ricky Skaggs, who’s proudly kept the bluegrass fire burning for more than four decades. The 15-time Grammy winner and Country Music Hall of Fame mandolin master began playing in bluegrass legend Bill Monroe’s band when he was still in first grade, before joining Ralph Stanley’s band and going on to play with everyone from Emmylou Harris to Bruce Hornsby to Jack White. Along the way, he’s landed 12 No. 1 songs on the country charts and been inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, National Fiddler Hall of Fame, and Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame and received the National Medal of Arts in 2020.

Photograph courtesy Ricky Skaggs

Skaggs, 68, happily keeps his music tradition alive and, after a pandemic layoff, says he’s more excited than ever to hit the road with Kentucky Thunder, a band he thinks might be his best one ever. The tour stops at Memorial Hall on February 10.

You’ve been called the leading ambassador for bluegrass by none other than the Country Music Hall of Fame. How does it feel to have that mantle, and what does it mean to you?

Titles are always something someone else puts on you. I know I have an important role that I’ve been given, and I love getting to promote the music; if there’s any credibility in what I do and what I’ve done in the past, that’s great. It’s something I love and always have, even back in my early days of country—being with Emmylou and bringing some bluegrass sounds to her band and then coming to Nashville and doing my country records at Epic/CBS Records.

So many of those hits had bluegrass flavors: “Highway 40 Blues,” “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’,” “I Wouldn’t Change You if I Could.” We country-ed them up a little bit, put some steel guitar on them, but if you pulled out those instruments they were like Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers. We added enough flavoring to make it work and set it aside a bit from bluegrass.

You grew up in eastern Kentucky listening to old-time country on Cincinnati radio stations. What impact did that time have on your music?

At night some of those stations, like WLW, would play records while a lot of other smaller stations, the 5,000-watters, would shut down and open up their airwaves so the “clear channel” stations could have an even farther reach. We could certainly get it in Lawrence County in Eastern Kentucky. I remember hearing it, and at that time Cincinnati was a hotbed for bluegrass; the Osborne Brothers and The Stanley Brothers would travel through there quite a bit and play. Jimmie Skinner had a music store up there where people would come visit him. When [longtime musical partner] Keith Whitley and I joined the band, we didn’t have the fancy clothes to wear on stage, so we were driving through Cincinnati one time and I guess Ralph [Stanley] had built in enough time to stop at this clothing store he liked to go to that had gold lamé coats. We bought two or three different coats we could wear with black pants. For us, that was big time when we finally got our “working” clothes.

Did you used to come to Cincinnati as a kid to see music or visit?

There were some families that lived up the holler from where we lived, like Larry Cordle, who I grew up with and who wrote “Highway 40 Blues” and great songs for Alan Jackson and George Strait. He and I grew up together playing music and singing, but he was my older sister’s age. His dad and uncle would take a carload of some of the older boys to go see the Cincinnati Reds play, but I never got to go because I wasn’t old enough to make the cut. I’ve been to a Reds game since then—after I grew up I thought, Man, I’ll show them! It was a little far for us to go, so if we went to a bigger city in those days it was Ashland, Kentucky, or Huntington, West Virginia, which were a little closer. Cincinnati was definitely a thoroughfare for us as we traveled, especially with [Skaggs’ first band] Boone Creek and before that with J.D. Crowe, Tony Rice, and Jerry Douglas and Country Gentleman.

Cincinnati’s King Records famously embraced both R&B and bluegrass with The Stanley Brothers’ early recordings as well as James Brown. Can you recall listening to King Records artists as a kid?

Oh man, as soon as they came out we would get them! I never got to meet [King founder] Syd Nathan, but I’ve heard stories about him and James Brown. Ralph used to tell me about seeing James Brown come into the studio and be in the control room groovin’ while Ralph and his band were singing their songs. You just never knew who would show up there. [Bluegrass duo] Reno & Smiley was on King records, and Mac Wiseman. They would do those records where they’d take four or five bluegrass artists and take recordings with them and the country artists that they were working with and put them all on the same compilation.

We loved King Records. When Keith and I recorded our first records in Cincinnati, it was with Jack Lynch, who Ralph knew. We did our first record there, which was Tribute to The Stanley Brothers. I was 15 or 16 years old and, boy, did we look it on the album cover! We did have our fancy coats on in that photo but it was sepia, so you couldn’t really tell the colors.

You’ve played and recorded with so many iconic bluegrass and country legends, from Bill Monroe to Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton. But you’re also not afraid to rock out with Bruce Hornsby, Jack White, and Phish. Why do you think those artists are drawn to your sound?

I’ve always said the mandolin works in any kind of genre. I’ve played mandolin on a whole lot of records that weren’t bluegrass at all. I guess my singing and being able to play as well has opened a lot of doors. Bruce Hornsby loved bluegrass. Growing up he called his style of music “Bill Evans Plays the Gospel Hymn Book.” His style of playing works well with everything we’ve done with him. It was such a no-brainer once you hear his piano. I think the CMT Crossroads show we did together [in 2002] really knitted our hearts together musically. We worked up a setlist of songs to do for that, and we did three or four tours through the years, a studio album, and a live record.

One of the last things we did as far as pairing up with another artist was me with my wife Sharon and her dad and sister, who go by The Whites. We did a tour with Ry Cooder in 2015 and 2016 we called Cooder-White-Skaggs, and we made some unbelievable music. Sharon’s dad is 92 and lives with us. He has dementia and Alzheimer’s now, and he doesn’t remember hardly any of it, but it was musically his last big hurrah. He played so great on that because he encompasses western swing—he grew up in West Texas with Bob Wills and Moon Mulligan—as well as rockabilly, gospel, and country, and he’s such a great mandolin player and knows bluegrass up and down.

You’re legendarily a ripper on mandolin, guitar, and fiddle. Is there any instrument you wish you could master that you haven’t yet?

Oh gosh, my love for steel guitar is off the scale. I’ve studied it, I’ve loved it, and I can almost tell who’s playing as soon as I hear an intro. Lloyd Green is one of my favorites. He played with his heart, like he had a heart on his right hand. He had so much emotion in his playing, and he was a staple musician for so many years in Nashville and played on all of Charlie Pride’s stuff and tons of other sessions.

As much as I love the steel guitar, I don’t think I could ever learn the mechanics of it. It’s so complicated, and I know math pretty good—but I can’t push a pedal down, take my knee to the left and then my right knee and do another twist while keeping the volume pedal going. There’s just so much going on, it looks like someone’s head is about to explode.

Country music has gone through so many changes over your 50-plus year career, but you’ve steadfastly stayed true to traditionalist country, bluegrass, and new grass. Were you ever tempted to roll the dice and sing about beers and babes and trucks?

Not really. I was cool with others doing it, but that just wasn’t me. I wanted to be honest and true to my faith and to the music as well. I always said I would never record a song I wouldn’t look my mother in the eyes and sing.

What was it like for you to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2018 by Garth Brooks, who got a bit misty during the ceremony introducing you before you played Bill Monroe’s legendary mandolin on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”

It was almost like a dream. It’s hard to even remember unless I could go back and watch it. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would come to Nashville with that goal in mind: I’m gonna work real hard and be in the Hall of Fame. I know people set goals, but I say you just work hard, keep your head down, and keep your hands on the plow. Don’t look over your shoulder and keep going, and maybe God will open up an opportunity for you.

The Hall of Fame is such an honorable thing. You can’t really go any higher in country music. But I think people look back at your history and look at what you’ve contributed to others. It’s more than what you’ve done musically. It’s about what you’ve given to the community and what you’ve given back to musicians and how you deal with other singers and songwriters—your persona, your heart for the music and heart for others.

You’ve been inducted into more than half a dozen halls of fame, typically the sign of looking back. But you’ve kept moving forward, including your current lengthy U.S. tour. What keeps you motivated?  

Bills. [Laughs] No, not so much. I just feel like I’m not through. I feel like I’ve got such an incredible band right now, probably the best bluegrass band I’ve ever had. They’re such incredible players, and you don’t have to tell them what to play at all. It’s about giving them a place to create and be who they are. If my fiddle player was trying to play everything I’ve recorded over last 40 years, it wouldn’t be him. It took me a while as a bandleader to understand that.

Back in the days when I was doing my country hits and I took the band on the road, I felt like it was important for guys coming into band to play exactly what was on the record. I didn’t want someone to go out there and just rip an intro that has no semblance of the melody. Just because you can don’t mean it’s the right thing to do. I felt like fans who put down $50 for a ticket deserved to hear the song that maybe got them to buy the ticket in first place, that one song. We owe that to them—to pay those solos and especially intros and endings so they can sing along.

Any favorite Cincinnati foods?

I love to get the hot dog and chili. That’s gotta happen this time for sure.

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