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Skaggs, Ricky (18 July 1954-Present)

Multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter from Cordell, Kentucky, who was playing the mandolin at five years of age and appearing in concert with Bill Monroe at six. The young, overnight sensation was on TV at the age of seven, with bluegrass legends, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. He expanded his musical horizons (and capital) by learning the banjo, fiddle and guitar and performed in the self-explanatory Skaggs Family.

As a teenager, he experimented a little bit with rock and roll, but his heart was in bluegrass. In 1970, he and fiddling phenom Keith Whitley opened for Ralph Stanley and he offered them a job on the spot with his band, The Clinch Mountain Boys. He stayed with them through 1972, but the long hours and low wages drove him away from music for a short time and he took a job with the Virginia Electric Power Company in the nation’s capital.

Fortunately for him (and legions of fans) he was rescued from the boiler room by The Country Gentlemen, a long-standing bluegrass outfit based in Washington, D.C. In 1974, he band-hopped to J.D. Crowe and The New South and appeared on their debut album in 1975. In 1976, he reunited with Whitley on That’s It and started his own group, Boone Creek. They released a pair of albums, a self-titled debut in 1977 and One Way Track in 1978.

In the meantime, Emmylou Harris hired him to supplant Rodney Crowell in her Hot Band. Their collaboration spanned 1977-1980, culminating with Roses in the Snow, for which he arranged, played mandolin and fiddle, and sang harmonies. Ricky is credited with pushing Emmylou Harris toward bluegrass, and she has gone on to influence a new generation of artists, including Alison Krauss.

During his years with Harris, he also moonlighted with Tony Rice on a pair of albums, Skaggs & Rice and Take Me Home Tonight in a Song. In 1979, he struck out on his own and released a solo album, entitled Sweet Inspiration. These recordings captured the imagination of Epic Records, who wisely snapped him up and out of obscurity and put him in the national limelight.

His sophomore offering, Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine, yielded four hit songs, including the #1 singles, “I Don’t Care” and “Cryin’ My Heart Out Over You”. It was a seminal album in the so-called neo-traditional wave of country music.

Chet Atkins said that Ricky Skaggs had the potential to rescue country music from the doldrums of the pop-inflected ‘70s. He may not have been far off the mark. By re-introducing acoustic instruments into an industry that was trying to keep pace with pop-rock, he helped pave the way for other, more traditional country artists, such as George Strait and Randy Travis, who helped put the W back into C&W.

His second album for Epic, Highways & Heartaches, was even bigger, reaching #1 on the country albums chart and generating three more #1 hit singles: “Heartbroke”, “Highway 40 Blues” and “I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could”. He followed this up with more #1 albums, Country BoyDon’t Cheat in Our Hometown and Live in London, and more #1 singles, “Country Boy”, “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown”, “Honey (Open That Door” and “Uncle Pen”.

In 1985, he was named Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association. He continued to produce hits, such as 1986’s “Cajun Moon” and “Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This” (with his wife Sharon) and 1989’s “Lovin’ Only Me” and ended the decade with twelve #1’s and a half-dozen top-ten hits.

In the 1990s, the country music industry delivered a cruel fate to him: The genre he had helped salvage from the throes of pop-rock took another hard turn, becoming the new rock. Cowboy hat wearing stars like Clint Black and Garth Brooks were peppering the charts, but radio stations fell out of favour with Ricky Skaggs, just as country music ironically sought to expand its base. The new country had plenty of room in its tent for George Strait’s straightforward country and western swing, but not bluegrass.

Ricky’s fans, many of whom were disenfranchised with his slick new country sound, and had been clamouring for him to return to his bluegrass roots for years, eventually had their voices heard when he formed Kentucky Thunder. The genre he had brought to country music embraced him and his new band, showering them with Grammys and International Bluegrass Music Association awards.

In 2007, he famously duetted with Bruce Hornsby, an experiment that may have made his fans skittish, but nevertheless exposed a new audience to bluegrass music, as well as bluegrass fans to the piano virtuosity of Hornsby. Also, at long last, he finally recorded an album with The Whites, which comprises his wife, sister and father-in-law. The album, Salt of the Earth, won a Dove Award and a Grammy Award.

In 2008, he released the CD, Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 46 & 47, an homage to his mentor and idol, Bill Monroe. Earl Scruggs, the only living Monroe alum, made a guest appearance on the album. He also released an acoustic affair entitled The High Notes, in which he re-worked many of his own hits into a more traditional bluegrass format, frequently supplanting the obligatory steel guitar with a fiddle or piano. In January 2009, he performed some of this material at the Newberry Opera House in Columbia, South Carolina.

He continues to record on his own label, Skaggs Family Records, and is responsible for discovering a new generation of bluegrass musicians, including Cadillac Sky and Cherryholmes. His trophy case is a treasure trove full of CMA Awards and Grammys that will likely keep growing throughout the 21st century.

Ricky Skaggs recordings
Heartbroke (Guy Clark)