Like other American families, the family of Ricky Skaggs enjoys its time together during the Christmas holidays. But unlike most, the Skaggs family calls upon its prodigious musical gifts to bring the joy of Christmas to concert halls.
On Saturday, three generations will step on stage to celebrate “A Skaggs Family Christmas” at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. The lineup will feature award-winning bluegrass band Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder; Grand Ole Opry favorites, the Whites, which includes Ricky’s wife, Sharon, her father Buck and sister Cheryl; the Skaggs’ daughter Molly and son Luke; Cheryl’s daughter Rachel; and Rachel’s husband, Andy Leftwich, who plays fiddle with Kentucky Thunder.
The Skaggs family is the latter-day extension of the Carter Family and Stonemans, Hall of Fame artists who pioneered the early decades of the country music industry. Led by piano- and mandolin-playing patriarch Buck, the Whites scored a top-10 hit with “You Put the Blue in Me” in 1983, and joined the next year. Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder have earned eight trophies as bluegrass music’s Instrumental Band of the Year. The family has combined for two CDs and a DVD featuring music from their Christmas shows.
The idea for the Christmas concert was born in adversity around 10 years ago when a bus breakdown necessitated an impromptu family sing-along. Kentucky Thunder was scheduled to open a show in Atlanta for Ireland’s legendary Chieftains. Ricky and his family went ahead of the band, whose bus caught fire, keeping them from making the show.
Facing a full set of music without his band, Ricky marshaled his resources.
Sharon recalls that “Ricky paced around and said, ‘I know what I’ll do. I’ll go out and I’ll do a couple. Then I’ll call you out.’ Then he looked at Molly and said, ‘And I’ll call you out and you can do something.’
“So we started the show that way. Molly had been playing banjo for about a year, but had a few songs she could do. She sang a pretty Jane Ritchie song, ‘Pretty Saro.’
Ricky’s booking agent happened to be there and was impressed by the improvisation.
“He said, ‘If you guys do a Christmas show, I could sell this,’” Sharon recalls. “So we came home and started singing Christmas carols together. We had learned that Rachel was good on stage and that Molly could wow a crowd. So we put it together and we’ve had so much fun with it. We’re blessed to get to do these shows.”
“A Skaggs Family Christmas” will feature a variety of seasonal songs and members of the cast performing in different configurations. Among the highlights is a trio featuring Molly, Luke and Rachel on the classic carol, “O Come Emanuel.” Molly, who lives in Sophia, N.C., and Luke, a member of the Winston-Salem band Songs of Water, will also share the spotlight along with their 83-year-old grandfather, Buck.
The Skaggs family strives to create a family atmosphere in the Christmas show that reflects the special nature of the holiday.
“We always enjoy circling up in the kitchen (on Christmas Day) before we eat, and we pray. I’m always so thankful for the chance to be together, slowing our lives down and remembering what the season is about,” Sharon says.
“That’s what we try to do with the Christmas show, too – give people a show that entertains but is harking back to slower times.”