This man's music is easy pickings

Skaggs' many projects have bluegrass at core

March 22, 2003|By Rod Harmon | Rod Harmon,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Ricky Skaggs is considered the torchbearer for bluegrass, a protege of Bill Monroe who has kept the genre alive for more than 25 years in the face of country's steady slide into pop territory.

That still doesn't mean he's good at puzzles, evidenced by a recent appearance on Wheel of Fortune in which he and a fan competed against Brenda Lee and Joe Nichols.

"I did terrible," Skaggs said during a break from recording in Nashville. "When you're watching it at home, you think, `That's the dumbest answer anyone could give.' Boy, I realized that I would never, ever say that again about anybody, because it is not easy at all. But it was a lot of fun."

Skaggs ended up raising $10,000, which he split between two charities, Feed the Children and Samaritan's Purse. He also got to take home some sweet parting gifts, including a digital camera, laptop computer and 42-inch flat-screen television.

Not that Skaggs will ever get time to play with his new gadgets. A notorious workaholic, he's got so many projects in the fire that it will be at least until Christmas before he can come up for air.

"It's been a busy year so far, and it doesn't look like it's going to ease up," he said.

At the time of this interview, Skaggs, 48, was taking a break from producing a gospel album by a trio consisting of his wife, Sharon White-Skaggs, Connie Smith and Barbara Fairchild. The album is expected to be released on Day Wind Records this summer.

He just finished filming a live concert for PBS' Great Performances as a member of the Three Pickers, a takeoff on the Three Tenors with legendary bluegrass players Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson. He's executive producer and music consultant for an upcoming Disney animated film, My Peoples.

And he's finishing up mixing duties on a new live album with Kentucky Thunder, "Live from the Charleston Music Hall," recorded during two concerts last November and scheduled for release on Tuesday.

"Shoot me in the head if I ever decide to do another live record," he said. "I am such a studio hound. I like to have everything laid out, and know what's happening, and how we're going to do things. With a live record, it's like a balancing act all the time."

Still, Skaggs said, if you want to hear raw, unadulterated bluegrass and can't see it in person, this is the next best thing. It's also got several songs that have never been released before, making it a must for completists.

"If people want to hear, touch, taste and smell bluegrass music, there's no better way than to see a live concert," he said. "And if you can't see it, you should at least experience it through a live album. We're really proud of the way it came out. It's got a few live hickeys like all live albums should, but it's got such a great feeling."

Skaggs, a native of Louisa, Ky., has been considered one of the best live performers in country music since the early 1970s, when he joined Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys. A spot in Emmylou Harris' band introduced him to a mainstream audience, which led to the launch of a solo career in 1979.

Throughout the 1980s and early '90s, Skaggs' merger of bluegrass with contemporary country made him a hot commodity. During a 10-year period, he racked up 11 No. 1 singles, three classic albums, four Grammys and eight Country Music Association awards, including "Entertainer of the Year" in 1985. In 1982, he became the youngest member of the Grand Ole Opry. Chet Atkins credited him with single-handedly saving country music.

If what Atkins said was true, Skaggs couldn't manage a repeat performance in the '90s, when traditional country gave way to a pop hybrid popularized by Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw. Unable to get his music on the radio, and getting little attention from major record labels, he decided to strike out on his own with Skaggs Family Records.

"In '96, both Bill Monroe and my father had just passed away, and I really felt a deep calling back to the music of my youth," Skaggs said. "So I started a small label, and it's been a great thing to have. We recently made a deal with Universal to be our distributor. It's like having a farm team with a pro team supporting you, and it gives me all the freedom I need to make the music I want to, but still have the flexibility of having a major distributor."

Skaggs is toying with the idea of starting an offshoot of Skaggs Family Records that will cater to the Christian music market. First, though, he's got all those other projects to finish, and a new studio album to record for a Christmas release.

"Yeah, I'm a work hound," he admitted with a sigh.

At least he won't have to solve any puzzles.

Ricky Skaggs

What: 11th annual Care for Kids concert

Where: Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson

When: 8 p.m. March 29

Admission: $40, concert; $125, concert and reception with Skaggs. Proceeds benefit the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital's services for children

Call: 410-938-GIFT.

Signing: Skaggs will perform a song or two and sign copies of his new album at 1 p.m. March 29 at Borders Books & Music, 415 York Road, Towson

Call: 410-296-0791

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