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Nashville Scene Back to Basics

Country singer finds success playing the music of his youth

By Michael McCall

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  Recently, during a Ricky Skaggs performance at Nashville's Tower Records, a group of young, wild-looking rockers came into the store. "They had tattoos and earrings and pierced lips and tongues and everything," Skaggs says. "They were pretty colorful looking."

The looks on the guys' faces told the story: Not only did they arrive unaware that an in-store concert was in progress, they also had no idea who the nattily dressed, conservatively coifed band onstage was. Skaggs' manager, Stan Strickland, feared the young men might do something disruptive. So he edged up close to them as they studied the seven acoustic musicians, who were ripping through an instrumental tune. When the song ended, one of them turned to his friends and said, "Man, that was fucking awesome."

Skaggs laughs as he tells the story, abbreviating the swear word so that he doesn't have to repeat it, but otherwise taking great pride in how the young rockers reacted to his music. "That's exactly the kind of reaction we want," he says. "We want to express just how exciting bluegrass music can be."

Speaking in rapid-fire tones, the veteran country music star explains that he has completed his conversion from former Nashville radio star to impassioned, born-again bluegrass devotee. "I'm at a place now creatively that I'm just on fire about," says Skaggs, who released his second consecutive bluegrass album, Ancient Tones, on Jan. 26, the same day as his Tower appearance.

It's been a while since Skaggs experienced the kind of career momentum he's feeling now. Between 1982 and 1985, he was among the hottest stars in country music, scoring 10 No. 1 hits in a three-year period. Moreover, the sound he achieved back then put him at the forefront of a back-to-tradition movement that revitalized country music in the early '80s. His career reached its peak in 1985, when he won the prized Entertainer of the Year honor from the Country Music Association.

Within months, though, Skaggs had lost much of his momentum. He gambled with a 1985 album, Live in London, which sold disappointingly; the singer would enjoy only one more No. 1 hit in the ensuing years.

With the advent of the '90s, Skaggs failed to earn much radio play, even if his albums often deserved a wider hearing. He became more of a media spokesman for country music, hosting a concert series on The Nashville Network and a syndicated radio show, Simple Life With Ricky Skaggs.

In 1997, Skaggs took another chance. As Atlantic Records prepared to release the singer's Life Is a Journey album, he recorded a second album on his own. This companion work, financed from his own pocket, found the onetime bluegrass prodigy returning to the mountain music of his youth. He struck a deal with Rounder Records to form his own label, Skaggs Family Records, and he released Bluegrass Rules! independently at about the same time his major-label album came out.

The sales figures tell the rest of the story: Atlantic only shipped 30,000 copies of Life Is a Journey, and the company didn't bother investing much into the project. The record withered without making a sound. Bluegrass Rules!, however, received a rousing reception from critics and fans alike. With sales topping 150,000 in a genre where sales of 20,000 are usually regarded as a triumph, Skaggs found himself joining Alison Krauss as a poster child for the commercial revival of bluegrass music.

"I am unbelievably overjoyed at what's happened," Skaggs beams, observing that he should send a bottle of wine to Atlantic Nashville president Rick Blackburn, to thank him for his lack of commitment to Life Is a Journey. "I should thank country radio," he adds, "for letting me know that I'm not 'new country' anymore. That's OK. I didn't take it personal. As far as I'm concerned, it couldn't have worked out better."

Skaggs admits, however, that he might never have made the career leap if he hadn't been pushed. "A guy asked me a question, 'If you were still having No. 1 country hits, would you have ever left?' I thought, 'Golly, you know, I probably wouldn't have.' "

Now fully devoted to his career as a bluegrass musician, Skaggs believes he's converting others to the joys of bluegrass as well. As he points out, when the music is good, it's easy to convince people to take a listen. "The excitement that Bill Monroe could create onstage--there isn't anything better. I've got tapes from '45 and '46, when he had Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt in his band. I'm telling you, when Earl and Bill came walking onstage, it was like the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. The crowd was screaming."

These days, Skaggs admits, too many bluegrass bands cloak their musical intensity in timid stage shows. Not so with the Del McCoury Band, a group Skaggs recently signed to his label. The singer notes the musicians' charisma and their aggressive way with a tune: "When you see them, they go after it. They go for the jugular."

Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder slice the same vein as well. Both live and on the outstanding Ancient Tones album, their sound is often incendiary and always soulful. The new collection matches the dynamism of the group's previous album, Bluegrass Rules!, while adding deeper and more diverse musical shades. From the deft picking to the intricate arrangements to the powerhouse harmonies, the music shines throughout with rare passion and precision. In short, Skaggs and his cohorts are showing how to move bluegrass, a fine 20th-century art form, into the next millennium.

"I'm real hopeful that we're on the verge of seeing another trend start to happen," he says. "I think there are people out there looking for something to latch onto in the same way they latched on to country music a few years back. It might even be bigger than that. I'm seeing people set up to have their ears opened, their eyes opened, their hearts opened, and their spirits opened to something fresh, something new."

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