Live Interview: Ricky Skaggs
10 Nov 2015 - The Birchmere - Alexandria, VA
for The Lot Scene by Parker
It’s not everyday that you score an exclusive interview with Bluegrass royalty. But that is precisely what happened for us in Alexandria, VA at the historic Birchmere. Ricky Skaggs’ tour with Sharon White and Ry Cooder was making a two night stop and provided the perfect opportunity and privilege of sitting down with Mr. Skaggs for a truly fantastic interview. We all enjoyed ourselves greatly and it was certainly a treat to hear what Ricky had to say on a wealth of subjects…a treat which we will share with you now:
TLS: So, we wanted to start with a little bit of a walk down memory lane and to a fateful day for you that we know through videos that we’ve seen: the day of Flatt and Scruggs.
TLS: And, really, where we wanted to focus, since I am sure this question has come up a lot or at least about that day, for us, we are more interested in whether or not at that age you really had an understanding or appreciation for kind of the gravity of where you were and what you were doing at the time.
RS: You know, I really didn’t. I mean, I knew they were famous. I knew they were big stars. But I didn’t necessarily know what a big star was. I mean, I knew they were on the Grand Ole Opry and I knew that they had a television show and that was pretty dang big to me, you know, as a seven-year-old. But, looking back at it now, good gracious, that was huge. And the door that was opened for me in that. But, you know, to me they were Lester and Earl and the people that we watched on TV as a kid, living in Kentucky. If I was out playing, my mother would holler out you know, because I didn’t have a watch or an iPhone so I never knew what time it was. My mother would holler out the door, “Lester and Earl’s on! Come on home!” I’d run as hard as I could from wherever I was at to the living room, to the television and sit down. You know, I loved their music. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched any of the whole shows together, but just the kind of way that Lester would kind of “in and out”, would M.C. and host and it was really something to watch.
TLS: Something special.
RS: Yeah, it really was. Boy, I look back at it now and I see how huge it was, but how innocent I was to the surroundings and all that was going on. And, really, how pure-hearted that I was. I didn’t know I was…well, I knew I was going to do a television show because they asked to do it, you know? My dad had me backstage at the Ryman, where the Grand Ole Opry was in those days…it was 1960, probably, or ’61. And I just happened to get backstage and my dad had made friends with the backstage guard, Mr. Bell, sweet guy, and he’d made friends with him so he would let us come backstage from time to time if we wouldn’t mess up or bother somebody or, “don’t touch anybody’s instruments, you know.” “Oh, we’ll be fine.” Finally I got to where I could bring my mandolin back there, he didn’t mind. And so, one night, I was kind of just leaning up against a wall, you know, playing my mandolin. My daddy would have his guitar and we’d just be down there playing. And Earl Scruggs just walked by that night and I’m sure he was a little bit sympathetic to that since he had sons that were learning to play, too, Gary and Randy — his two boys, Randy might be a year younger than me and Gary was older, but, anyway they were learning to play and so I think Earl was like, “there’s another playing boy, a young kid.” And, anyway, he just asked my dad and said, “that boy’s good! Why don’t you bring him down for an audition for the television show?” So, man, we jumped up and down and went down to the audition and did it. I’ll tell you a quick tidbit to go with this…to show how backward and how untarnished from the world that I was as a child. Being from the hills of Kentucky, when we’d moved to Tennessee, we were already living in Tennessee before all this took place. But my dad, in his heart, his whole move for us coming to Tennessee was he wanted to get me on the Grand Ole Opry. He just really wanted me to get on there. It would’ve been the big straw in the hat. But, I guess, child labor laws at that time and just being too young, you know, all that. But, anyway, so we did the show and they call, oh, they didn’t call my mama. I don’t even know if we had a phone at the time. I guess maybe we did have one, probably did, but anyway they sent a little card through the mail and it was addressed “Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs Show” at Channel 4. They let us know when the show was going to be aired so, man, we looked forward to that date, put it on the calendar. My dad got home early from work and we got home from school. Mom had dinner ready and there was no waiting. It was like, “we’re going to eat now, going to get these dishes put up, and we’re going to sit and watch this show.” So, that was the deal — we sat down to watch the show. So, I watched the first two or three songs or so and then, Lester had it made up that, when I walked out, I would walk out and kind of, while he was emceeing and talking about Martha White or something, that I would come out and kind of interrupt him, you know? And my mother…I remember the day that we did it, I didn’t have a chance to tell mom that I was doing to go out and interrupt him. Being the South, you didn’t interrupt anybody, you didn’t interrupt a grown-up especially.
TLS: Bad manners.
RS: I know, it was, it’s disrespectful. And so, I didn't have a chance to tell mom, they just told me right before we went out there. They said, “now you come out and kind of, kind of interrupt him.” //unsure voice// “OK.” So, we’re sitting there, watching this on TV, and as soon as I saw myself walk out on the screen…I mean, my God, there I am on television! I flip out. I mean, I was so shy I couldn't handle it. I couldn’t. I ran into my bedroom and got under my bed. Couldn’t watch it.
TLS: Too many emotions?
RS: Yeah, I couldn’t stand to watch myself. And that was that. That’s how shy and backwards I was. So, for years, since they didn’t re-run those shows, they ran them one time, they sent them out on syndication, they went to Louisville and from Louisville to Chicago, Chicago out to St. Louis, just wherever. And, when it got back to Nashville, after a month or two, they would take those tapes and re-record over them just to save money. Martha White didn’t want to spent a lot of money on production costs so they didn’t want to buy a reel of tape. And so, it’s amazing that this show ever survived. This old man that used to work at WSM, when there was a special show of some kind that he wanted to keep, he would take the master home and would make a dub and bring it back. So it still had the numbers on it when I finally saw it some 30 years later. I finally saw it. So, that’s kind of the complete story. A friend of mine went to the Country Music Hall of Fame and was down there looking at tapes and for information and someone said that they had just gotten in some new Flatt and Scruggs things. And he said, “I’ll go through them.” So, he went through them, and lo and behold, there was a tape with me on it! And so he had a dub made for me and saw Sharon at the Opry one night and he said, “here is something for Ricky and I want you guys to watch this. He’s especially going to love this tape.” She said, “what is it?” He said, “I’m not even going to tell, but you’re going to love it.” So Sharon knew…as soon as we moved to Nashville in the ‘80s, when I came down there to get my country music career going, some of the first people I made real close friends with were Earl and Louise because he’d have pickin’s over at his house. So, anyway, I asked them if they had a copy of that and they said, “no.” They remembered me doing the show, especially Earl, but they didn’t have a copy of it then. Then that thing surfaced, you know. Sorry for such a long story.
TLS: No, no. Thank you. It’s fascinating. We really appreciate it. We really do.
RS: Well, thank you.
TLS: We’ve heard you talk about music, it is so central to your life, that if you had been born in New York you might have been a jazz musician, might have had an accordion if it wasn't the mandolin. For us, there is a wonder whether there was maybe a Ricky that had aspirations towards something different. So, if it hadn’t been music, is there somewhere else you could see yourself? Another career, another vocation? Or is it just music, through and through?
RS: I’ll tell you, it’s all I’ve ever done. All my life. Since I was three-years-old I’ve been singing. Since I was five I’ve been playing. I’m 61… Hmmm, I’d probably be on the street. I don’t know what I would do! You know, I would have worked at something. My dad, was a welder and taught me how to weld. And, it’s very possible if I hadn’t have taken music I might have done something like that, been a construction worker of some sort. Now, I love photography and I am a photographer so I go out and do quite a bit of photography work — I take my cameras with me all the time. And so, I love doing that. I’ve about got my website up where I can share my photographs with people. I’ve had some opportunities to set up exhibits when we go out and play at performing arts centers or places like that. I’ll come in at five o’clock in the afternoon, show starts at eight, and I invite people to come and meet me and look through the art and buy if they want to. It’s great fun and I love doing it and it’s another part of the creative gift. It kind of involves music but doesn’t necessarily have to be through that. But, it’s taught me how to see. Music teaches me how to listen; this teaches me how to see. And how to understand. Of course, I’m always looking for the light, where’s the light? And that represents Jesus, to me, you know, the “Light of the World”, Jesus said. So it’s spiritual for me, as well, because I always want to see what God sees in something. If I can capture what He sees, then it will bless somebody. If I can capture in pictures what He sees…so I am always asking, “Lord, help to see what you see in this picture” or “show me something to shoot that would touch somebody.” You never know when someone’s in a hospital room with cancer or some illness, and one of my pictures may end up somewhere.
TLS: Helping someone in some way you don’t even know.
RS: Yeah, it’s just like music. They may hear one of my songs or something like that playing in their room in a place like that, like “Somebody’s Praying” or something like that? One of the songs that I’ve done…and really be touched in a good way.
TLS: So, Chet Atkins, a name that would be familiar to you, notably credited you with “single-handedly saving Country Music” many years ago, back in the ‘80s. Obviously things had moved from their roots and your style and your energy brought things back to center. Recently in 2013 there was a PBS interview, in a small quote from you talking about Europeans and how they really appreciate traditional country and bluegrass and don’t like being spoon-fed the “new crap being coined as Country music”. So, in your opinion, is the state of popular Country Music today back to where it was before you saved it, and if so, what do we need to do to save it again?
RS: Well, it certainly has gotten away from any semblance of traditional Country that we grew up playing and listening to in my day. But, you know, my heart has really softened so much toward music and toward people that want to play. My hope is that whoever is playing whatever they’re playing will get young kids engaged in the music, engaged in Country Music. And then maybe they’ll start doing some searches and they’ll go back and they’ll start discovering traditional Country Music and Bluegrass and that kind of stuff. I always tell people I think Chet was off his meds that day when he said that.
RS: It was a sweet thing to say, especially for someone like him who was such a pop…he brought a real Nashville sound to Country Music that was not in any way traditional. Chet knew good singers and knew good music, people like The Everly’s, my God, the stuff he did with them was just amazing. He kept it in the vein of where it was original and gave it room to grow and morph. And that’s what I love about him. But, I don’t know…I look out there and I listen to new artists. There’s a kid, Mo Pitney, from around Knoxville, this kid is really, really great. He sings a lot like Keith Whitley and George Jones — he really cares about the old stuff. And so, I’d love to see him have a chance to swing at the fence. He’s a really good artist. Look him up on YouTube. I’m sure you’d love the guy singing — he’s aggressive and he sounds really good. Good ol’ tall, skinny kid and he’s been at the Opry a few times and I really love his singing a lot. I’m not gonna rag on the young kids anymore. I have ranted and raved. And I know my brother Vince has. And Marty. And different ones of us that really have authority. I think we have to be careful with that authority and keep it wise and speak when we need to speak. I want to speak for and not against. Speak up and not down. I’m really trying to learn that in my elder years.
TLS: I’d like to end our interview with some breaking news, some good news, at least we view it as good and we wanted to hear your weigh in…
RS: We’re sold out the next two nights!!
TLS: //laughter// That is great. Well, it was announced, just this morning that Mr. Cody Kilby has a permanent position with The Travelin’ McCoury’s.
RS: That he does.
TLS: The first question that sprang to our mind was: is his space in Kentucky Thunder safe?
RS: Oh no, he’s gone. No he’s definitely gone and I gave him my blessing. And it was really…it wasn’t bittersweet, it’s just “sweet sweet”. It’s kind of bittersweet that I won’t be playing with him, but he’s not leaving town and I’ll see him a lot. He came with me when he was 19 and so he stayed 14 years — that’s a long time. But I just hired a kid today: Jake Workman. Go check him out on YouTube. He is a bad mammajamma. He plays mandolin, he plays banjo. But, his guitar playing is just stupid; just incredible. He plays electric, too. I said, “man I saw you playing electric.” He said, “aw, that’s when I was a teenager.” It was a shred video too — he was playing Eddie Van Halen with these little taps and stuff like that. I told him, “don’t forget that stuff. We may incorporate that stuff in the music.” But, he’s a great kid…he and his wife. He’ll be with me in January when I come back [to the Birchmere]. Going to have a couple of good hard days of rehearsal and we’re work him hard, like a rented mule.
TLS: //laughter// I’m sure he’s looking forward to every minute of it.
RS: He is. He really is. He’s wanted this job for a long time. Bryan Sutton, another great musician that was in my band for awhile.
TLS: Hot Rize now.
RS. Yeah. He highly recommended Jake and so did Cody. Cody said, “man this guy can walk in without any trouble and take this over, so don’t worry about it.”
TLS: Filling some big shoes to be sure. Good to know you have such high aspirations for him.
RS: Well, I do. I think he’s going to be great.
TLS: Thank you so much for your time today, sir. It’s been a true honor.
Many thanks to Mr. Skaggs for agreeing to sit down with us for such a superb interview and special experience. We look forward to more of this dynamic man and his music soon and always.