Ricky Skaggs is telling his story

Kentucky Traveler - My Life In MusicRicky Skaggs is on tour again this month; nothing new there. But this time around, he’s on the book circuit, doing interviews and signings at major booksellers around the country for his newly-released autobiography, Kentucky Traveler – My Life In Music from Harper Collins.

Anyone curious about the life of the iconic bluegrass and country musician can expect to find the whole story here, as recalled by Ricky himself, from his teen years working with Ralph Stanley, to the days with J.D. Crowe & The New South in the ’70s, to Boone Creek, and Emmylou Harris, and #1 country hits, and then back to bluegrass. The book was co-authored by Eddie Dean, who served in the same role with Ralph Stanley for his Man Of Constant Sorrow in 2009.

We had the chance to speak with Skaggs recently about Kentucky Traveler, and wondered whether he had followed the same process as Stanley and Dean, meeting for interviews which were taped, transcribed, and organized into chronological and thematic order.

“It definely was. We checked out quite a few co-writers, and what I wanted more than anything else was someone who could capture my voice and my story. I really recognized Ralph’s voice in Man Of Constant Sorrow, and wanted the same thing.

We went through quite a few rewrites, but you have to stay on top of things to make sure that it was me saying what I mean. It took two years, and a lot is my writing as well, when I felt like I needed to change something that Eddie sent.

We started out recording interviews, after a few initial meetings. Eddie would come down here for a couple of days, and I met with him one Saturday after we played the Birchmere. He would then send things on to me. He’s a great guy, and he really kept me on task.

I think he did a great job. I talk in an Eastern Kentucky dialect, and I’m not really politically correct. Eddie and Harer Collins pushed a bit to correct my grammar, but I always insisted that we keep it real.”

Skaggs was quick with an answer when I asked why now was the right time for a biography.

Ricky Skaggs with Kentucky Traveller - photo by Patricia Presley“I ain’t getting no younger!

I had had an offer to do a book with another company here in Nashville about 10 years ago, but their focus would have been a little more for the Christian market, and that put me off a bit as I didn’t want to just focus there.

Plus we had started Skaggs Family in 1997, and there was an awful lot going on.

Now just felt like the right time. Not that I’m not busy – I’m still plenty busy – but now that the kids are out of the house, I have a bit more time.

Kentucky Traveler isn’t a Christian book, but it’s about a Christian man. Harper Collins was willing to let me include the story of my spiritual life, and that of my family growing up. Some people may think of it as old time mountain style religion, but for me it was real part of my story, something I live still today.”

The practice of remembering your life from the perspective of middle age often elicits some surprises, and I asked Ricky to reflect on that. Was there anything that stood out when looking back at his youth?

“Just what a big role my parents played – my dad especially in his unfaltering and unfailing love for me – and his respect for me as a young musician. He knew that I would have to work hard at it, and he really tried to keep me engaged.

I’m so glad that he did, and I’m so glad that he didn’t let me played basketball or baseball. I was a bat boy when I was 7, that’s as close as I came to playing. he was always afraid that a bad hop would crush one of my fingers. He’d say, ‘Son… it’s not worth; it just ain’t worth it. Your never gonna play baseball for a living, but you can play music until you’re 80 years old.’

And he always was encouraging me to look at new music and new things. My dad kinda raised me that way. It was more than just Stanley, Bill Monroe to him. He would turn me on to the older guys who were playing when Ralph and Carter were kids. He would get me around them, and that brought such a gift with a bow on it for me.

I fell in love with that old ancient sound of old time fiddle. It was so different from bluegrass. I heard old those old mountain slides, and it opened up my ears to a new sound.”

Perhaps the most singularly telling moment in Skaggs’ professional life occurred in 1970 when he and Keith Whitley were teens, and chance intervened for them to perform for Ralph Stanley. Ricky had appeared on stage as a much younger boy with both Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, but now he really had matured into a serious musician. As it happened, the boys had driven to a Ralph Stanley concert near their homes in Kentucky, and while sitting in the audience waiting for the show to start, the promoter got a call from Stanley saying that they were running late. He asked Keith and Rickey if they would sing a few, and the rest is history.

Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley performing with Ralph Stanley in the early 1970s“Keith and I only been playing together about six months at the time. When the promoter found out that Ralph was late, he asked if we had our instruments. We looked at each other like, ‘duh.’ They were in the car.

We had never played a whole show together, and when we got up to play, the only songs we knew together were Stanley Brothers songs. We were singing some of the King and Starday stuff, and some old Rich R Tone stuff. Ralph just flipped out when he came in. He pulled out a barstool and watched us sing for probably 20 minutes. He was already late, but he just sat there listening.

We met him backstage and we were completely start struck, apologizing for our cases being in their way. Ralph was saying, ‘Oh you boys did such a great job – you sound just like me and Carter.’ You couldn’t imagine anything that could make us feel better.

That started out what turned out to be a relationship that offered us so many opportunities we wouldn’t have had had we not met Ralph.”

Before long, both Skaggs and Whitley were touring as members of Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys, something Keith continued for several more years after Ricky left. Whitley’s untimely passing in 1989 also figures prominently in the book.

“I talk about Keith in a couple of chapters – our early days, and then when we were both playing country. We used to talk a lot about getting back together in a band someday, and we never seemed make it happen.

At some point we realized that we would never be in a band together again. We always had a good time together.”

Kentucky Traveler covers Skaggs’ long career in music, but he wants everyone to know that he’s not through yet.

“I have a lot more music to make! Sharon and I are doing a duet CD together, something we have wanted to do for a long time. We’ve been married for 32 years, and hadn’t gotten around to it.

I really want to stay plugged in and connected to young kids. I don’t want to wait until the end of my life to say yes to a young kid. I’d like to get involved in education somehow.

There are a lot of things on the horizon. I have no desire to quit recording and traveling. I’m more excited by music that I’ve been.”

In thinking about his time in music, Ricky ended this discussion on a reflective note.

“When I started Kentucky Thunder thunder, all the band members were older than me. Now, they are all younger.”

I didn’t want to let him go with chatting a bit about Cluck Ol’ Hen, his new live album with Bruce Hornsby that was released last week. The album was recorded during a previous tour they did with Skaggs’ band, tracked over the course of 6-8 months worth of shows. Ricky made a point about how music can bring people together, even folks with such different views on life as he and Hornsby.

Cluck Ol' Hen - Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby“There’s no doubt that we cancel each others vote when we go to the voting booth. But I love Bruce, his heart and his music. The music is the glue that we love about each other, each other’s respect for tradition, but also expansion and development of older music.

To me, it holds up a very strong statement that music is something that can bring liberal and conservative together. We’re all sinners, as far and faith and politics go, but music binds us.

The same with James Taylor. When I saw him at the Country Music Hall of Fame, he hugged me and said, ‘We have got to do something else together.’ It just shows that as outspoken as I am about faith and politics, the music still connects me with people who have strongly different opinions.

I don’t think I’ve lost one good friend because of my faith. We need to always take the lowest place in humility, and lift other people up. That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Kentucky Thunder is available now wherever books are sold, as is Cluck Ol’ Hen wherever you purchase recorded music.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.