Skaggs brings traditional sound to PAC

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 12, 2008

It was at the ripe old age of 6 when Ricky Skaggs first shared the stage with a legend.

Pretty much fluent for a young child in the artistry of the mandolin, the young Skaggs was at a concert of the great master of the instrument, Bill Monroe. Before concert’s end, Skaggs was playing along side Monroe on stage on “Ruby Are You Mad at Your Man.”

“Just the fact that I was called up there by him. He spoke my name. I knew he was a Grand Ole Opry star and very famous and I loved his music. I don’t remember being scared,” Skaggs said Wednesday in a phone interview from Tennessee. “ I do remember him taking the mandolin off his shoulder and wrapping the strap around to where it would fit me. So it was pretty amazing.”

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Now when Skaggs sees Monroe’s mandolin in the Country Music Hall of Fame he has a particular affinity for that special Lloyd Loar F5.

“That was the most famous mandolin in the whole world, “ he said. “When I see it, all those memories come back. I actually played that. Man, that was 40 odd years ago.”

Now a more seasoned musician, Skaggs will make his eighth appearance at the Paramount Arts Center as part of the Kentucky Music Trail series. In its fifth year the KMT brings the cream of the country music and bluegrass crop of musicians to the Ashland venue.

“I always love coming to Eastern Kentucky. That is my home where I was raised. It is a great venue,” he said. “Just to walk the streets of Ashland to see how people and things are changing.”

Things like the old Sears building, now a downtown eyesore, where a 12-year-old Skaggs got a new bike.

“We had to park a pretty good ways from the store and I remember riding that bike to my car. How proud I was. How excited. There was no concrete in Cordell, Ky., where I lived up on a dirt road, no asphalt at that time. It was getting to ride on a smooth place.”

The 13-time Grammy-winning musician, where fiddles, banjos, guitars, as well as mandolins feel at home in his hands, keeps an open artistic mind toward the new, what is called progressive, bluegrass. But his heart is still drawn to the traditional.

“I am more at home with traditional bluegrass. That is what I feel I play best. We try to do newly written songs by Nashville songwriters whenever we can find good songs,” he said. “People are not writing ‘Will You Be Loving Another Man.’ The time is so different. People are writing about the Internet.”

Not a topic that necessarily captivates Skaggs, who won’t sing a song whose lyrics don’t speak to him.

“I don’t just sing for the sake of singing,” he said. “I want songs to have a message. A lot of the older songs have something really great to sing about. Real positive. They gave a lot of hope.”

That’s because the Christian values instilled in the Lawrence County, Ky., native by his parents guide him as a man and musician. His concertizing and recording is a kind of ministry for Skaggs who finds the state of commercial country music offensive with its explicit vulgarity.

“I would never record a song I wouldn’t sing in front of my Mom and Dad,” he said. “If that disappointed them, I feel it would disappoint others. … I can’t even watch CMT. I don’t want my eyes to see that. … I know our world is getting more and more subjected to that kind of stuff.”

And it’s a rebellion against objectionable music and videos that Skaggs believes is one of the explanations for the resurgence in bluegrass.

“As things get farther away from the traditional, I think people have a yearning to go back to it,” he said. “There is a yearning in every heart for simplicity. As much as our world and life is complicated, people in their hearts would enjoy for a season in their life to have a simpler life.”

Ironically, as passionate as Skaggs is about bluegrass, there was a time when he turned his back — or at least thought he had — on the music world. That was during a few months in 1973 when he dropped out of performing and took a job

in the boiler room of the Virginia Electric Power Co. in Washington, D.C.

That job lasted until the night he brought his banjo with him as he started a midnight shift. His job was to clean and refill the boiler tanks, a job that usually took between 45 minutes to an hour. But Skaggs got lost that night in his music, so much so that when he went to check on the refill job, he found he had caused such a flood 50-gallon drums were floating on the floor.

“I knew then I was called to be a musician, not a boiler operator.”