Now 50, an age at which most country stars from the ’80s would be begging for a hit, Ricky Skaggs has found new life in the music business. Actually, he just went back to where he started: bluegrass.
The acclaimed singer and mandolin player is now considered bluegrass music’s keeper of the flame, and the Grammy Awards and nominations he’s received since returning to his roots in the late 1990s seem to attest to that. The albums keep coming, drawing critical praise and selling big, too.
“It’s been a great, it’s kind of a surprise, but not a surprise at the same time,” Skaggs said of his success. “More and more, country music goes away from tradition, while real traditional bluegrass music seems to have risen up to fill the space. You don’t see that all the time with bluegrass, but it’s a steady climber. It never has the really high peaks, but recently, the ‘O Brother’ soundtrack really helped to spike it.”
So, as Skaggs rediscovered his roots — he learned the mandolin at 5, was playing with Bill Monroe at 6 and was appearing on TV at age 7 with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs — so too are music fans discovering bluegrass again through Skaggs, Patty Loveless, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Del McCoury and some newer, younger bands such as Nickel Creek. There are the nontraditionalists like Sam Bush and John Cowan. And bluegrass is spilling over into the jam band genre to form what is termed “newgrass.”
“It’s pleasing, it’s pleasant to listen to, it’s interesting, it’s intricate in the playing and the musicianship. The way the harmonies are structured; all that makes it very unique and people love that,” Skaggs said. “Because you don’t hear it out there on every radio station, when people do find it, they feel like they are the ones who discovered it.”
Skaggs and his seven-piece band, Kentucky Thunder, who give new meaning to frenetic fretwork, will play shows at the University of Central Arkansas on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 10-11, at Reynolds Performance Hall. Both shows start at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25.
It’s fitting that the shows are in a college setting, with the younger generation grabbing onto a folk style that was popular in the ’30s and ’40s. Skaggs’ band reflects the wide range in appreciation of bluegrass, featuring top players in their 20s and others who have been with Skaggs since he was crooning mainstream country in the 1980s, winning the CMA Entertainer of the Year award in 1985.
His resume also includes early years with the legendary bluegrass ensemble Boone Creek, which also featured Jerry Douglas and spawned acts such as Alison Krauss. Before that he was part of J.D. Crowe and the New South.
“It was kind of cutting edge, but I didn’t know that at the time,“ Skaggs recalled. “I just thought we were making music, but as we look back we see those were inspirational seeds that were sowed.”
In the 1980s, though, Skaggs was “new country,” with traditionalism running out the “urban” cowboy sound, and with CMA awards and gold and platinum albums, Skaggs and his band were enjoying roaring success. “There was no rock ’n’ roll or pop in the music then,” he reminded. “But in the mid-1990s, it got so far away from any semblance of country music.”
He compares his “leaving” pop country to Georgia Sen. Zell Miller turning away from the Democratic Party. “It’s not that I left it as much as country music left me.” He adds, though, that he’s appreciative of such artists as Alan Jackson, George Strait and Randy Travis for still putting out good country music.
Skaggs’ latest bluegrass album, “Brand New Strings,“ released in late September, has been No. 1 on the Billboard bluegrass chart for several weeks.
“We’re pretty excited about it,” he said. “People magazine gave it a great review. One reviewer says it’s my best work as far as a bluegrass artist. It’s a great thing to know that you just turned 50 and you’re making great music and people are waiting for a new album.”
Kentucky Thunder’s all-star lineup 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).
“It’s a band that’s so functional. They are just such great musicians and very inspirational for me to be around, to pick up the energy they play with,” Skaggs said. “That’s good for me, seeing these 23-year-olds wearing it out. That’s life-giving for me.”
Look for a lot of the new album in Skaggs’ concerts this weekend. He’s also touring at this time with a Christmas show with the Whites (he’s married to Sharon White), but these Conway concerts will be “a regular Ricky Skaggs show,” he said. He has a Christmas album in the works on his own label, and he’s talking with keyboardist Bruce Hornsby about a new project.
“I turned 50 this year — that’s a lot of years playing music. I ought to be good,” he said. “If I can keep making good music and keep up a good band, I want to keep doing this another 25 years.”
Call 501-450-3682 for tickets or more information on the shows.