Perhaps it was preordained that Ricky Skaggs would follow in the footsteps of Kentuckian Bill Monroe, the mandolin-picking founder of bluegrass music.
Born in the same “Bluegrass State” that inspired Monroe to name his band the Blue Grass Boys, Skaggs was 5 years old when he received his first mandolin as a gift from his father. Within a year, Skaggs stood on stage, Monroe’s mandolin hung around his neck. With the Blue Grass Boys backing him, the youngster brought the crowd to its feet picking and singing the Osborne Brothers classic, “Ruby.”
It was the beginning of a lifelong adventure in music and his enduring love for Monroe.
“That night I found such passion for music and love and admiration for Bill Monroe,” Skaggs said by phone from San Francisco, a stop on the tour that brings him and his award-winning band, Kentucky Thunder, to Haw River Ballroom tonight. “That was the night that sealed the deal for me in my heart for this kind of music and for Bill Monroe. Standing there playing with a band, at 6 years old. That was a supernatural high that I’d never experienced before.”
That first night on stage is one of many stories Skaggs includes in “Kentucky Traveler,” his forthcoming autobiography scheduled for release August 13.
Today, Skaggs, 56, is one of the brightest stars of bluegrass and country music. Winner of 14 Grammies, his hall-of-fame resume also features eight Country Music Association awards and three Gospel Music Association Dove Awards. In addition, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder was voted bluegrass music’s top instrumental group eight consecutive years.
Kentucky Thunder’s personnel have changed over the years, as musicians moved on to other bands or careers. With the exception of veteran Paul Brewster, today’s lineup features young pickers who, despite their youth, are among the most accomplished musicians in bluegrass.
The seven-piece combo features Andy Leftwich (fiddle), Cody Kilby (lead guitar), Eddie Faris (guitar), Justin Moses (banjo), Scott Mulvahill (bass), and Brewster (guitar). With ages in the 20s and 30s, Skaggs sees parallels between his band and those of his mentor, Monroe.
“It’s a little overwhelming when I think about all the youth, but it’s a great thing, too,” he says. “I know how Monroe felt when he had Pete Rowan and Lamar Grier and Richard Greene in the band. They were all a bunch of young guys at the time. [Monroe] was probably 30 years their senior. That’s about the way it is with me. Not quite 30, but at least 20 to 25. But it’s been a lot of fun to see these guys bloom.”
The young lineup is featured on the band’s latest Skaggs Family Records CD, “Music to My Ears.” It’s an eclectic offering of hard-driving bluegrass with an ear-catching twist or two. The album includes covers of Monroe’s “Blue Night” and the Stanley Brothers’ “Loving You Too Well.” Don Stover’s spiritual reflection, “Things in Life,” and Skaggs’ instrumental, “New Jerusalem,” showcase his band’s bluegrass brilliance.
“You Can’t Hurt Ham,” written by Skaggs and Gordon Kennedy, is a smile-evoking story of a true incident involving Bill Monroe and an after-hours road snack. The Doc Watson favorite, “Tennessee Stud,” was added to the album the day after Watson’s death last May and features Skaggs’ spoken dedication.
The most interesting track is “Soldier’s Son,” written by the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb and Skaggs, and featuring Gibbs’ stratospheric tenor vocal. Skaggs and Gibb met in 1996, when Monroe and the Bee Gees were being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They shared their appreciation of each other’s music, and hoped to be able to work together in the future.
The future happened in 2006, when Gibb bought the late Johnny and June Cash home outside Nashville. Growing up in Australia, Gibb became a fan of country music by watching Grand Ole Opry shows that were televised at Ryman Auditorium. He chose to live in Nashville to be close to musicians and the music he loved. One day, he approached Skaggs and asked if he could send him some songs to consider recording.
“He sent me ‘Soldier’s Son,’ and I really liked it,” Skaggs recalls. “He said, ‘I thought about cutting it on the bluegrass record you’re working on.’ I said, ‘Let me think about that. If I choose to do it, will you come and sing it with me?’ He said, ‘When does the session start?’
“I sent him the track we cut. I wanted it to sound like Barry Gibb, but also to have my fingerprints on it. So we tried to do as much cross-pollination as we could. I love the way it came out.”
Bluegrass purists may balk at hearing a pop singer on a bluegrass album. But Skaggs prefers to stretch the boundaries of the music as a way to make it relevant and to help it grow. In 2007, he recorded an album with rock pianist, Bruce Hornsby. A live album consisting of tracks recorded during their tour, will be released in August. And, of course, Skaggs veered from bluegrass into a successful country music career before returning to his roots with the award-winning “Bluegrass Rules!” CD in 1997.
“A lot of bluegrass people will put their hands up and say, ‘No, you can’t come in.’ But I put my hands out so that people are welcome to come into this. To me, the more Jack Whites, Barry Gibbs, Joan Osbornes and people like that who we bring into our music, it just adds fuel to the flame and adds another dimension.”