By the time he was 8 years old, Ricky Skaggs had already played mandolin with the creator of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe and his band’s most important alumni, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs.
Skaggs’ father nurtured his son’s talent, sought out the masters of the music, and got young Ricky a chance to play with them. But the greatest thrill for Skaggs was meeting The Stanley Brothers at age 8. The Stanleys had always forged a more roots-based mountain music sound and reflected the soul of the people of the Appalachian region. Once again, Skaggs’ father created an opportunity for him to meet the legendary brothers.
“We went to see The Stanley Brothers in Olive Hill, Ky., and then we got backstage and my dad started talking to Carter about coon hunting ’cause Carter was a big coon hunter,” said Skaggs. “He loved to do that in the mountains, as a boy he grew up doing that, very much kind of a Southern mountain thing. They started talking about that, then obviously there was this little boy that was there with my dad holding a mandolin case. So my dad told him about me playing with Bill Monroe and with Flatt & Scruggs and all that. He said, ‘Well, son, let’s hear you.’ So I sang a little bit and played the mandolin. He said, ‘Well, we’ll put him on.’”
Skaggs got to play a few shows with the Stanleys, then went back to playing local gigs with his dad and perfecting his skills on mandolin and fiddle. When he was 15, he met Keith Whitley, who was also in high school, and the two formed a personal and musical friendship that would last for years.
Skaggs’ admiration of The Stanley Brothers had only grown since he met them seven years earlier, but Carter Stanley had passed away and Ralph had continued the band under his own name. Whitley and Skaggs made a special trip to see the group in a little bar in West Virginia, along with Skaggs’s father. Fate intervened that evening and once again, so did Skaggs’ father.
“Me and dad and Keith and Dwight [Whitley, Keith’s brother] went, and thank God we took our instruments with us,” said Skaggs. “My dad should have got royalties from the ‘don’t leave home without it’ slogan from American Express. That was his way. Take them instruments, leave them in the car. If we need them, we’ll have them if someone asks us. It’s better to have them than not. Always a prepared man. He kept his powder dry. Ralph’s bus had a flat tire or some kind of a problem, but he called this little beer joint and said he was going to be late, about 30–45 minutes. I have no idea how the club owner knew that we played and sang music, but he came up to us and said, ‘Did you all bring your instruments with you?’ ”
The result was an impromptu set of music that consisted mostly of numbers by The Stanley Brothers, because that was the music that Skaggs and Whitley knew best. When Ralph Stanley finally arrived at the bar, he was impressed with the young band playing his songs.
“He saw us that first night and he told me later, ‘When I stepped off the bus and heard the music inside, I really thought they were playing my and Carter’s old songs on the jukebox,’” said Skaggs. “He walked in and saw us live. I thought he was going to go on to his dressing room. I wished he had, because he was making me so nervous sitting there watching us … That started a relationship from that day on that never ended. I was at Ralph’s funeral, so that was as far as I could go with him on this earth. It was something very powerful.”
That chance encounter kick-started Skaggs’ and Whitley’s professional bluegrass careers. Ralph Stanley insisted that they finish high school, but as soon as they got their diplomas, both boys were on the road as members of The Clinch Mountain Boys. Skaggs went on to be a sideman with other influential groups including J.D. Crowe, Emmylou Harris, and his own early new grass band Boone Creek, where he played with Jerry Douglas. Later he began a successful solo career in country music. Skaggs managed to maintain some artistic integrity while becoming a million-album-selling Nashville artist.
“I wanted to try to blend—try to do a country record that could get played on country radio but yet could have the elements of bluegrass instrumentation in it as it called for it, not just to slam it in there every time to make a statement,” said Skaggs. “It wasn’t that. I wasn’t going to apologize when something like ‘Highway 40 Blues’ needed a mandolin and it needed a banjo.”
After 15 years and nine albums for Epic/CBS records, Skaggs decided to get back to his roots and release some pure bluegrass albums. He formed his own label, Skaggs Family Records, to allow him to have complete artistic control and also keep a promise he had made to Bill Monroe at the end of Monroe’s life.
“He was pretty much on his way out,” said Skaggs. “We had lots of talks, until he had a stroke and couldn’t talk anymore. We talked about his fear or uncertainty about the music and what would happen to it when he passed. I told him, ‘Mr. Monroe, you can go home. You can go to your heavenly place and not have to worry about what you created here. What you’ve started with bluegrass is going to way outlive you, it’s going to outlive me. It’s all over the world. People love this music. It is not going to die.’ ”
Skaggs’ turn to bluegrass was both an artistic and commercial success. His 1997 album, “Bluegrass Rules,” was a huge hit with both country and bluegrass fans, and won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. He has gone on to release many more albums with his backing band, Kentucky Thunder, and other artists including Bruce Hornsby and his wife Sharon White.
“The country popularity kind of gave me a household name for quite a few years,” said Skaggs. “I think when I came back to bluegrass, it lifted all the ships of all the bluegrass artists. It raised the water level. I mean that in a humble way, not that I’m the guy who did it. But coming back to the music and starting my own label, that was a big deal for a lot of people. There was a lot of country artists who followed that after I did it. I still wonder what it would be like to go in and cut a stone-cold country record. What would happen there?”