RICKY SKAGGS Sometimes in life, things come full circle. That's the story of Ricky Skaggs. By age 21, he was already considered a "recognized master" of one of America's most demanding art forms, but his career took him in other directions, catapulting him to popularity and success in the mainstream of country music. Now the road has brought him back to where it all began—bluegrass music.
2001 marked Ricky's 30th year as a professional musician, and this nine-time Grammy Award winner continues to do his part to lead the recent roots revival in music. Known affectionately today as bluegrass music's official ambassador, Ricky has brought the genre to greater levels of popularity in the past few years than the father of bluegrass music – legendary Bill Monroe – could ever have imagined. With seven consecutive Grammy nominated classics behind him, all from his self-owned record company, (Bluegrass Rules! in 1998, Ancient Tones in 1999, both Soldier of the Cross and Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe in 2000, History of the Future in 2001, Live at the Charleston Music Hall in 2003 and currently, Brand New Strings) bluegrass music is undoubtedly in good hands, with the masterful Ricky Skaggs at the helm.
Ricky was born on July 18, 1954 in Cordell, Kentucky and was already an accomplished singer and mandolin player by the time he reached his teens. In 1971 he entered the world of professional music with his friend, the late country singer, Keith Whitley, when the two young musicians were invited to join the band of bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley. Ricky soon began to build a reputation for creativity and excitement through live appearances and recordings with acts such as J.D. Crowe & The New South. He performed on their 1975 debut album for Rounder Records, which is widely regarded as one of the most influential bluegrass albums ever made. A stint as a bandleader with Boone Creek followed, bringing the challenges of leadership while giving him further recording and performing experience.
Beginning in the late 1970s, Ricky turned his attention to country music. Though still in his twenties, the wealth of experience and talent he possessed served him well, first as a member of Emmylou Harris' Hot Band and later as an individual recording artist on his own. With the release of Waitin' For the Sun to Shine in 1981, Skaggs reached the top of the country charts and remained there throughout most of the 1980s. As his popularity soared, he garnered eight awards from the Country Music Association (CMA), including "Entertainer of the Year" in 1985, four Grammy Awards and dozens of other honors. These achievements also placed him front and center in the neo-traditionalist movement, bringing renewed vitality and prominence to a sound that had been somewhat subdued by the commercialization of the urban cowboy fad. Renowned guitarist and producer, Chet Atkins, credited Skaggs with "single-handedly" saving country music.
In 1997, after Ricky's then-current recording contract was coming to an end, he decided to establish his own record label -- Skaggs Family Records. Since then, Ricky and Kentucky Thunder have released an amazing 7 consecutive Grammy nominated classics, (4 of which went on to earn the revered award) while also opening the label to a variety of other musical artists – all the time keeping the emphasis on bluegrass and other forms of roots music. Since then, Ricky and Skaggs Family Records have had the privilege of working with the following roster of musical talent: The Del McCoury Band, The Whites, Mountain Heart, Jerry and Tammy Sullivan, Blue Highway, Paul Brewster, Andy Leftwich – and the newly signed Melonie Cannon.
Ricky's first release from Skaggs Family Records, Bluegrass Rules!, set a new standard for bluegrass – breaking new sales records in the genre, winning Skaggs his sixth Grammy Award, and taking the International Bluegrass Music Association's (IBMA) ‘Album of the Year' award. In 1999, his second all-bluegrass album, Ancient Tones, won a Grammy Award for ‘Best Bluegrass Album'—his second consecutive Grammy in that same category. Just one year later, Ricky won his eighth Grammy Award in the ‘Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album' category for Soldier of the Cross – Ricky's first-and-only all-Gospel recording project to date.
Ricky made further progress with the release of his fourth bluegrass album in 2000, Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe. This project injected new fire and energy into the fertile fields of traditional bluegrass, celebrating the music and the life of Ricky's mentor, Bill Monroe. By assembling an all-star cast of musicians ranging from The Dixie Chicks and Travis Tritt to Joan Osborne and Bruce Hornsby, Big Mon received much critical acclaim, including a Grammy nomination for ‘Best Country Collaboration With Vocals.' The album was re-released by Lyric Street Records in 2002 under a new name--Ricky Skaggs & Friends Sing the Songs of Bill Monroe.
The fifth consecutive bluegrass album for Ricky and Kentucky Thunder album came in 2001, with the release of History of the Future – a timeless collection of both traditional bluegrass standards and newly conceived acoustic gems that paid tribute to not only bluegrass music's original founders, but also introduced some of the genre's best new songwriters, sounds and styles. Not surprisingly, the album received rave reviews and industry accolades – including a Grammy nomination in the ‘Best Bluegrass Album' category and an IBMA nomination for ‘Album of the Year' – once again placing Skaggs among the leading innovators in the genre.
Skaggs first all-live album with Kentucky Thunder, Live at the Charleston Music Hall, helped the band net the award for the IBMA's ‘Best Instrumental Group of the Year.' (This is an award Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder has won six out of the last seven years!) The decision to go live with the album was an obvious one for Skaggs – coming off the IBMA wins, and because the current configuration of Kentucky Thunder ranks among the best group of musicians he has ever worked with. "This group of guys meets my approval every night," said Ricky. "Each and every one of the pickers in Kentucky Thunder totally amazes me in every show…and that to me, outweighs any award we could ever win." The all-star lineup of Kentucky Thunder includes: Andy Leftwich (fiddle), Paul Brewster (tenor vocals, rhythm guitar), Mark Fain (bass), Jim Mills (banjo), Cody Kilby (lead guitar) and Darrin Vincent (baritone vocals, rhythm guitar). Honored in 2004 with a Grammy win, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder – "Live" at the Charleston Music Hall is a concert album destined to take its place among country and bluegrass music's classics.
Beyond his award-winning recordings, Ricky continues to lead the charge in bringing renewed vitality to country music's most down-to-earth form. From his string of high-profile tour dates with the Dixie Chicks in 2000, to his position as host of the unprecedented ‘All*Star Bluegrass Celebration' which aired nationwide on PBS in 2002, to his participation in the wildly successful 41-city ‘Down From the Mountain' tour -- Ricky has become one of bluegrass' most talented and dynamic performers.
Ricky Skaggs has often said that he is "just trying to make a living" playing the music he loves. But it's clear that his passion for bluegrass puts him in the position to bring this lively, distinctively American form of music out of isolation and into the ears and hearts of audiences across the country and around the world. This has rarely been done in the half-century since Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys first gave shape to bluegrass. Blessed with a close-knit family, an abundance of talent, a lifetime of musical experience and a crack band behind him, Ricky Skaggs is well on the way to showing the world that "country rocks, but bluegrass rules!"