Skaggs, Ricky (1954—)

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Skaggs, Ricky (1954—)

A seasoned musical veteran by the time he turned 18, Ricky Skaggs parlayed early bluegrass music prominence and an apprenticeship with Emmylou Harris's country-rock Hot Band into a career that put him on top of the country music charts in the early 1980s. While he was capable of brilliance within each genre, it was his creation of a modern sound out of traditional elements from both that earned him widespread acclaim and respect even after the rise of the hot New Country format shut him (and others like him) out of country radio in the early 1990s. Down but not out, he roared back into the limelight in 1997 when the album that signalled a return to his roots, Bluegrass Rules!, became the first traditional bluegrass album to break onto the country sales charts.

Born in a small town in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, Skaggs began his career early, playing mandolin and fiddle with his parents' semi-professional band by the time he was five. In 1971, he and partner Keith Whitley were taken under the wing of bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley, with whom they toured and recorded for several years. While Whitley continued to work with Stanley through much of the 1970s, Skaggs left to take a short-term job with the Country Gentlemen, and then joined J. D. Crowe and the New South in 1974. Though his tenure with Crowe was brief, it was exceedingly influential; the band toured widely, including a visit to Japan, and made one of the most significant bluegrass albums ever, a self-titled release for Rounder Records in 1975. When Skaggs departed from the New South, he and fellow alumnus Jerry Douglas formed Boone Creek, another influential act that combined traditional bluegrass with a more modern, rock-influenced sound.

Following the breakup of Boone Creek, Skaggs went to work for Emmylou Harris, then an habitual presence at the top of the country music charts. As a member of the Hot Band he both influenced and was influenced by Harris, bringing bluegrass sounds into her material while honing his skills as an electric guitar picker and developing an appreciation for the application of rock beats and accents to traditional country material. A 1979 solo album, Sweet Temptation, made while he was still with Harris, showed Skaggs in the process of turning these lessons into a catchy, distinctive sound that melded his influences and experiences into something new; when a single from the album, "I'll Take the Blame," garnered some airplay on country radio, he plunged into a solo country music career, signing with Epic Records and producing Waiting For The Sun To Shine in 1981.

Skaggs's first Epic single, "Don't Get Above Your Raising," hit the Top 20, and after his second single reached the Top 10, he had his first number one recording with an updated version of Flatt & Scruggs' "Crying My Heart Out Over You." From then until 1986, he was never absent from the upper end of the country charts, scoring 15 consecutive Top 10 hits, most of which reached the top. The winning formula proved to be a combination of modern-sounding remakes of country and bluegrass classics ("I Don't Care," "I Wouldn't Change You If I Could," "Don't Cheat In Our Hometown," "Uncle Pen") and well-crafted country-rockers ("Heartbroke," "Highway 40 Blues") by younger, sophisticated writers, all delivered by a supremely talented band of musicians, many with bluegrass backgrounds. These achievements brought him acclaim—the legendary guitarist/producer Chet Atkins credited him with "single-handedly" saving country music—as well as a flood of honors, including membership in the Grand Ole Opry (at the time of his induction he was the youngest person ever to join the cast), eight awards from the Country Music Association, and four Grammies. Though he continued to make occasional guest appearances with bluegrass acts in concert and on record, the 1980s saw Skaggs take up what seemed to be a permanent residence in the world of country music.

By the end of the 1980s, though, Skaggs's releases were no longer topping the charts. Some critics attributed the decline to stagnation and a decline in the quality of his material, while others took note of the changing shape of country music radio, then turning toward a variety of broader rock music influences. Whatever the cause, he had only one number one recording after 1986 ("Lovin' Only Me," 1989), and by 1988 most of his singles were failing to reach the Top 20, with his last charting one coming in 1992. Though he continued to maintain a high profile on the Opry and cable television's Nashville Network, hosting a well-received concert series on the latter in the mid-1990s, mutual dissatisfaction between Skaggs and his label found him making a jump to Atlantic Records, for whom he made two strong albums that were favorably received by critics, but not by mainstream country radio.

However, shortly after the release of his second—and, it turned out, final—Atlantic album, Skaggs found a new lease on musical life by returning to his starting point: traditional bluegrass. Turning his country band into a bluegrass one, he recorded an album of standards--Bluegrass Rules! (1997)—that startled virtually everyone by selling well enough to earn a place on Billboard's country album chart. Not by coincidence, the shift came at a time when the death of bluegrass's founder, Bill Monroe, had prompted concern about the longevity of the style; Skaggs was as well-positioned as anyone to contribute to its survival, and the album release was followed by broad-ranging tours and televised appearances, as well as savvy use of the Internet to reach listeners directly, bypassing commercial radio. By the end of the decade, Skaggs was proclaiming his permanent commitment to bluegrass, and hundreds of thousands of fans appeared to greet the news with equal devotion.

—Jon Weisberger