“It’s one thing to play bluegrass music,” writes Ricky Skaggs near the end of his new memoir, Kentucky Traveler. “It’s a whole other thing to make a living at playing bluegrass music.”
Spend a few minutes with one of the state’s foremost bluegrass and county music ambassadors and he will explain not only how deeply he takes that credo to heart. He will also gladly outline the blessings (“gifts,” as he regularly calls them) that propelled his life and career beyond his wildest bluegrass dreams.
“It’s been an incredible story,” Skaggs said in a telephone interview last week. “And it still is, really. Old time music and bluegrass, then the whole family dynamic with my mom and dad, meeting Mr. Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers … I mean, when I sit back and think about all the things that happened in my life…”
Here, Skaggs’ voice trails off. A memory of a life well lived and worked can cause that to happen, especially when you try to neatly encapsulate the events, people and discoveries that filled that life. Luckily, he has a new memoir titled Kentucky Traveler to set the record straight. Every last note of it.
“The thing is, the half has not been told. There are things I’ve forgotten that I remembered once the book was done. Sharon (White, Skaggs’ wife and a fellow country and gospel artist) will remember things and say, ‘Well, is that in the book?’ and I’ll say. ‘No. I forgot to put that one in.’ And she will go, ‘Oh, my goodness. You’re going to have to do a revision.”
If you have experienced bluegrass in the Bluegrass, there are certain aspects to Skaggs’ career that are simply givens. They deal primarily with the mid ‘70s, when he became the mandolin voice in J.D. Crowe’s first and most influential lineup of the New South. That was followed by club shows with dobro great Jerry Douglas (another Crowe alum) in Boone Creek.
But as the title suggests, Kentucky Traveler unravels as a series of broader snapshots. They begin during the years Skaggs grew up in the Eastern Kentucky hollow of Brushy Creek and the airtight bond he shared with his parents. Then they weave through the alliances he forged with a legion of bluegrass forefathers topped by patriarch Bill Monroe (“Mr. Monroe”) before winding their way through a career full of country hits, a renewed focus on bluegrass and fresh partnerships with new musical friends.
“Faith, family and music – they were all so intertwined when I was growing up,” Skaggs said. “I mean, I was hunting and fishing, working and doing stuff on the farm, planting tobacco and bailing hay – a lot of stuff that didn’t get in the book. I wasn’t just sitting around 14 hours a day playing the mandolin or the fiddle like a lot of people might think. The fiddle and mandolin and playing music were really just a pastime. It was entertainment for us as a family.
“But I tell kids when they ask me to sign a mandolin or a fiddle to be serious about their music. I ask them, ‘How much are you getting to play?’ And they’ll say, ‘Well, I play a little bit.’ Then I’ll ask, ‘Okay. How much Nintendo or Sony Play Station do you play?’ And it’s, ‘A lot.’ So I tell them, ‘Man, that is not your friend. Sit down with that instrument. If you’re going to get serious about it, then get serious about it. You’ve got to pour your time into it. You’ve got to pour your life into it. You’re going to make it if you work at it. But if you just play at it and use it as a hobby, you’ll just be a hobby player.’
“I think sometimes they get it and sometimes they just kind of laugh or grin as they walk off.’ But then their Dad will turn around and say, ‘Thank you.’
There are a several bittersweet farewells as the book concludes. Especially revealing are recollections of Skaggs’ father and mentor Monroe. Both died within months of each other in 1996. But there are also hints of alliances that are just now coming to fruition – in particular, a teaming with pop piano man Bruce Hornsby. Their second collaborative album, Cluck Ol’ Hen, will be released next week.
“It’s one of the best musical projects I’ve had a chance to be part of,” Skaggs said of the record. “I’m so thankful, again, for another gift in Bruce Hornsby. What a gift in my life and a gift to music.”
A balance of purpose and playfulness dominates the music, from the warp speed band delivery of the Monroe chestnut Bluegrass Breakdown to an extended reading of Hornsby’s White Wheeled Limousine that pares itself down to a brief dialogue between the two musical titans playing piano and mandolin.
Such a mix of mischievousness and confidence has long been an integral element of Skaggs’ playing. He remarked that spirit is displayed vividly on the cover of Kentucky Traveler, which sports a picture of Skaggs as a child – mandolin already in hand, already meaning business.
“There was a look my eye in that picture. I don’t know if it was determination, if it was destiny, if it was a calling. I don’t know. Whatever it was, there was a look in my eye that says, ‘I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. I’m not real good at it, yet. But I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing with my life.’”
Ricky Skaggs will sign copies of Kentucky Traveler at 7 p.m. Aug.28 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 161 Lexington Green Circle. Line tickets are available with purchase of the book. Call (859) 273-2911 or go to www.josephbeth.com. Skaggs will also perform with Bruce Hornsby will at 8 p.m. Oct. 4 at the Taft Theatre, 317 East 5th St in Cincinnati. Tickets are $32, $44.50 and $52.50. Call (800) 745-3000 or go to www.ticketmaster.org.