Ricky Skaggs on the State of Bluegrass

The good news about bluegrass, Ricky Skaggs said Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, is that it’s attracting new generations of fans and talented pickers.

The bad news, he added, is that those fans are just like younger devotees of every other kind of music. They don’t want to pay for it.

“I like the fact that you can find bluegrass just about anywhere,” he said. “I wish people would pay for it.” He likened downloading a song for free to removing a songwriter’s wallet from his or her pocket, taking money out and walking away.

When asked what could be done about it, though, he said that’s the new reality for music and it won’t change. “That’s the world we live in,” he said. “We can’t do anything about it, but we don’t have to like it. It’s just not fair. But people expect things for free.”

Skaggs is in town to perform at a Friday night fundraising gala for the Wounded Warriors project. He talked about that project, his current CD with Bruce Hornsby, Cluck Old Hen, and his book, Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music. And he recounted tales that are quite familiar to fans of bluegrass in general and Skaggs specifically, about his appearances at a young age with some of the monuments of bluegrass, including Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and Ralph Stanley. But for someone billed by the National Press Club as a “legend,” his responses to questions from Washington journalist were humble and soft spoken.

Was there an award he hasn’t won yet but would like to? “Dad of the year,” he responded. (Induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame would be nice, too, he allowed, but that was an afterthought.)

Why is the Wounded Warriors fundraiser important? “It’s just a good thing to serve those who serve us,” he said.

What does he tell young musicians who ask him for advice? “I don’t just talk to them about music. I talk to them about what’s in their heart,” he said. Then he laid out a credo that can stand up to any of the great sayings carved on granite monuments and buildings all over Washington:

“Truth, faith, and love are always relevant, in every generation.”

Along the way, he even made a little news. He still wants to record a CD with Barry Gibb, the surviving member of the Bee Gees, but he also wants to make a record with 1970s rock icon Peter Frampton. And, speaking of icons, Skaggs just recorded a grassed-up cover of Paul McCartney’s Listen to What the Man Said for a fund-raising project, and plans to include it on an upcoming bluegrass album.

Skaggs recalled only getting one television channel at his Kentucky home and having to walk across a snowy field to his grandfather’s house to watch McCartney and the rest of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. While his sister was “pulling her hair out,” Skaggs said he turned to his father and suggested they were a pretty good band. When his father allowed that they were, indeed, Skaggs put it into a musical context he was most familiar with.

“But they’re not as good as Flatt & Scruggs, are they?” Ricky asked.

Dad’s response: “Nope.”

Skaggs finished the Press Club appearance performing two songs, an instrumental with nephew-in-law Andy Leftwich on fiddle, and a Christmas song, New Star Shining.

Here’s video of the entire one hour presentation.


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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.