It is being reported by Washington, DC media that today President Trump has awarded the Presidential Medal of the Arts to Ricky Skaggs in recognition of his long career in traditional country and bluegrass music.
Skaggs first made an appearance in the bluegrass world on The Martha White television show, performing Foggy Mountain Special with Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs in 1961 at 7 years of age. In 1970, he and childhood friend Keith Whitley were invited to join Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys after Ralph heard them singing Stanley Brothers songs in a club.
Living in the Washington area after leaving Stanley, Ricky could be found sitting in and recording with The Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene. By 1975, he was playing mandolin and singing with J.D. Crowe & The New South, alongside other young grassers Tony Rice and Jerry Douglas. From there he helped in the formation of Boone Creek, with Douglas, Terry Baucom, Wes Golding, and Steve Bryant.
Interested in a career in the more lucrative country music market, he took a job with Emmylou Harris, playing mandolin and fiddle, and singing in her Hot Band. He drew widespread critical mention following her Roses In The Snow album in 1980, on which he arranged much of the music and all of the vocal harmonies for this very successful bluegrass-inflected record. A solo album, Sweet Temptation, was released in 1979, with a mix of country and bluegrass.
Skaggs signed with Epic Records in 1980, and took country radio by storm the following year when Waiting For The Sun To Shine was released. The album featured songs from the world of traditional bluegrass and country music, performed with a twangy, ’80s country vibe. Songs from Flatt & Scruggs and The Stanley Brothers were playing on country radio all over the US, with two, Cryin’ My Heart Out Over You from Lester and Earl, and Webb Pierce’s I Don’t Care going to #1.
The next album, Highways and Heartaches, was awarded platinum status, and put Larry Cordle on the map with Ricky’s version of Highway 40 Blues. Subsequent records found him returning Bill Monroe to the radio with a country/grass mashup of Uncle Pen, and a Telefest on Albert Lee’s classic, Country Boy.
But by 1996, Ricky was back to bluegrass, hiring an all-acoustic edition of Kentucky Thunder with recognized stars like Jim Mills, Bobby Hicks, Paul Brewster, and Lou Reid in tow. Since that time, he has produced a series of top-flight records, and until concerts were cancelled last year, had one of the most popular stage shows in bluegrass.
He has enjoyed a lengthy and truly remarkable career, and if there is such a thing as a modern bluegrass hero, Ricky Skaggs is surely one.
Also receiving the Medal today was Toby Keith. President Trump had previously given this same award to Alison Krauss. Ricky Skaggs had been slated to receive this award during 2020, until COVID-19 restrictions made the ceremony impossible.
Perhaps owing to the political circus currently engulfing the capital, we have been unable to get confirmation from Ricky’s publicist, and hope photos from the ceremony will be forthcoming soon. We will add as they become available.