Ricky Skaggs: Bluegrass Icon on Choosing The Right Producer & Honoring His Past

Ricky Skaggs, the multi-instrumentalist, neo-traditional bluegrass ambassador has been out on the road in Europe this year, going from an all-acoustic set crossing over to electrified country during the second half. Skaggs added to his 14 Grammy Awards and countless other music awards with an induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame this year alongside Aretha Franklin. Skaggs recently sat down with Performer to discuss his new Skaggs Family Records release Music To My Ears, which features a song written and performed by Barry Gibb.

I see you worked with Gordon Kennedy as co-producer again.

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The [album’s] deadline was moved closer so I was under some sort of pressure, but I had Gordon there to help me. It was just great to have Gordon on the other end of the glass. Sometimes, I think I might like an idea but when I listen back to them I don’t like them that well. In the past I may have had a tendency to settle for that, so it’s great to have someone to balance my ideas.

Gordon also got involved in songwriting?

I love his production skills but his strong suit is bringing great songs to the project. It’s like a hand inside of a glove for me. He and I wrote “You Can’t Hurt Ham.” It meant something to me and of course the bluegrass community laughs every time they hear it. It lets people know a side of Mr. Bill Monroe that maybe they didn’t know. Bill’s humor was great even though he didn’t think it was funny. He would come out and say these things that would crack all of us up, kind of like Grandpa Jones. Grandpa Jones was the funniest man in the world. And everybody knew it but him.

You paid tribute to Bill Monroe as well by covering “Blue Night,” right?

Yes. I loved his version and the band that was part of the process on that song with Mr. Monroe; they were really creative and very influential. They were a bunch of young guys that grew up listening to his music, kind of what Kentucky Thunder is to me right now.  They’re young players who grew up hearing me in the ’80s and ’90s and now they’re part of my band.  They just inspire me so much, their playing abilities, you know? Andy Leftwich, Cody Kilby, Justin Moses… Paul Brewster of course is a few years younger than me but he has been with me a long, long, time.

Now, back to Bill Monroe’s cut of “Blue Night.” It was just phenomenal, for lack of a better word. Richard Green grew up playing violin as a classical musician and when he heard of bluegrass he flipped out. He just wanted to learn it but he came to bluegrass through the left hand of a classical violinist so that affected his choice of notes. Things like “Midnight On The Stormy Deep” and of course “Blue Night” were so inspirational to me.

That was definitely a creative peak for Bill Monroe.

It was one of the last great bands that Bill Monroe had.  People talk about Bill Monroe being an old stick in the mud and just an old traditionalist. Bill was a traditional kind of guy, but man, people need to just shut up and go back and listen to his music. Even from the first recording of this new bluegrass sound, “Heavy Traffic Ahead.” I mean it was so new and so fresh for 1946 [compared to] what they had been playing in the past.

He really had a creative mix of players.

Duke Ellington was much the same way like Bill Monroe. He was a magnet for young musicians. He drew the young cat or the guy who really could play, he drew them like a moth to a flame. I mean everybody wanted to be in Duke Ellington’s band. It was the same way with Bill Monroe.  They either wanted to be in Bill Monroe’s Band, Flatt and Scruggs or The Stanley Brothers back then. Bill would just dog somebody who was afraid to really play. You know it was like, “Give me what you got! Just pour it out there!” If you were willing to stand up and play what was coming through your heart, your head, your hands, Bill could appreciate it.

You picked Barry Gibb’s song “Soldier’s Son” to be on this album.

Barry and I met in 1997. The Bee Gees were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame the same year as Bill Monroe. We got to meet up there in Cleveland and we visited for a little while, but it really wasn’t until Johnny Cash and June both passed away and Barry and his wife Linda bought his house here in Hendersonville, just north of Nashville that we got to know each other.  Barry had plans on moving up here and they wanted to live in the Cash house. That kind of all got bashed when the house caught fire and burned down. But, during that time I got to be with Barry and got to know him a lot more. Barry was always talking about music. That was such a part of his life. He tells me he’d written some things and he said, “I would love to send something for you to listen to” and I thought you know, what a deal to have a song from the second highest grossing songwriter next to Paul McCartney in the whole world.

I mean, it’s not like he’s got this company that is plugging his music saying, “Let’s send something to Ricky Skaggs,” you know, this is Barry himself saying, “I’ve got something I think you’ll really like but, if you don’t, just throw it in the trash.” I thought, “I won’t be throwing this in the trash!” Anyway, he sent me this song and I really loved it; I called him back and Barry was talking about wanting to do a record with me. I pinched myself. You know, if I die people are going to say I died from pinches. So, my response back was, “Hey, I love the record but I think if you have 10 or 12 more of these we could go in and do a record on you.” He said “No, I was thinking that it would be something you would want to cut for your bluegrass record.” I asked if he would be interested in coming up and recording it with me and he said, “I don’t need to think about it. I want to do it! Just tell me when you need me there.” I really wanted it to sound like him but I also wanted to sound like me, too.  I wanted to combine adverse elements, obviously, use some drums like he used on the demo, electric guitar and keyboard. But, I wanted to add the fiddle, mandolin, acoustic guitars and the gut string fretless banjo on there as well.

It sounds really unique.

Barry came and did the Thursday night bluegrass show at the Ryman in August, then he did an appearance at the Grand Ole Opry on Friday. It had been a life-long dream of his to sing on the Grand Ole Opry. [His] brothers are passed and gone now and he is left to do whatever kind of music he wants to do. I think it’s great because it gives him a clean slate and he can choose his destiny, musically, wherever he wants to go.

That was a pretty cool story about you recording with Jack White and The Raconteurs in 2008. How did that come about?

I met Jack at the Grand Ole Opry one night. He and his wife were there and they were just backstage kind of hanging around and watching the show. I thought, “That looks like Jack White.” I went up to Jack and spoke to him and was telling him that I really liked his music. I loved what he did with Loretta Lynn and the fact that he honors the old music. We got to talking about studios and he said, “I heard you really had a killer studio.” I was saying, “Yeah, I really love recording – we have some great old mics,” and this and that and the other.

I guess it was about six months after that I got a phone call and it was Jack’s office. They were trying to find some time to come and record a song that they were actually going to do a video of as well. We worked it out when I could come down and do it and it was just such a nice thing. It was great spirits, nothing heavy. It was just fun and they were very respectful – it reminded me of when Bill Monroe came in to record with me. We did “Wheel Hoss,” an instrumental – I did it on the “Country Boy” record back in ’84/’85, I guess. I just remember looking out through the glass and we had already cut the track. I didn’t know if Bill Monroe had ever done any overdubs before because he was such a live artist.  He pretty much cut his music live on all the recordings so when I looked up there and saw Bill setting headphones on his head and playing along I was like, “Good Lord! I’m not dreaming!” They were great. Jack and The Raconteurs. It was just a fun experience. If I ever get another call from them it would never be too soon.

There are a lot of young bluegrassers and Americana artists like The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons.  Are there any new artists that you would like to work with?

I would love to work with either The Avett Brothers or Mumford & Sons. I think I could bring stuff to their music that would be fun.

You have also done some work with Bruce Hornsby.

Bruce Hornsby and I are great friends and we’ve worked together over the past four or five years. We did a studio recording and we went out and did a tour and recorded about 16-18 shows. We’ve taken those shows and compiled them into one record and I am hoping be able to put that out in 2013 as a live record and go back out and tour again. It’s a great recording, hearing Kentucky Thunder [with] a hot piano player in the band.


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