Ricky Skaggs in total control of his career

In an industry where second chances are far from abundant, Ricky Skaggs might be the luckiest musician there is. Having cut his teeth with the likes of Ralph Stanley when he was still a teen, Skaggs is widely regarded as a master of the bluegrass genre and would go on to his own commercial success while holding close to his traditional country music values throughout his career.

He is now in the fortunate position of being able to reap what he sows, calling the shots at Skaggs Family Records. With 14 Grammy Awards, seven Country Music Association Awards and 12 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards to his credit, few could argue the man’s direction to date.

Skaggs is headed to Moncton for a performance at the Moncton Wesleyan Celebration Centre on St. George Boulevard tomorrow.

Calling from his home in Nashville, Skaggs looks back at the time spent under Stanley’s wing as a crucial period of his life.

“Playing with Ralph really helped to shape me as a musician,” he starts. “I knew a lot about his music before I had even started working with him and (that) was a big reason why I was hired to play in his band,” he says.

“Looking back, I think it was very important that I had the chance to play in a band that wanted to stay very traditional. That band had boundaries and demarcation lines that they did not want to cross musically but I was taught to be respectful and to play to please my boss.

“You know, it is a very humble thing to care enough about who you are working for to want to please them. I enjoyed my years with Ralph very much and still to this day, we are great friends.”

From Stanley, Skaggs would go on to work with JD Crowe and then Emmylou Harris, the latter of whom Skaggs was still employed by upon the release of his 1979 solo debut Sweet Temptation.

Nowadays, Skaggs works only for himself, having launched the Skaggs Family Records imprint as an outlet to release his own material in addition to albums by artists including Keith Sewell and The Whites. The flexibility and control he is able to exert over when his music is released in addition to when and how long he will tour for, it is the ideal business model for a man of 56 years.

“I have a career now instead of the inverse being true. There’s a big difference to be found there.

“I call the shots: it is when I want to work and it is when I want to record. It is a freedom that few artists and musicians ever achieve. This is a great life I have for myself; I am still very excited and very passionate about music.”

Skaggs and his band maintain a schedule of between 75 and 100 dates a year although he admits that the downturn of the economy over the past couple of years has seen them perform shows on the lower end of that range.

“We had been regularly doing 100 dates a year but today, the economy dictates playing around 25 per cent less shows. It is the same for almost all entertainers. It is unfortunate but is just the way things are right now. I am content with where we are at right now but if we could get in those extra 15 to 20 dates a year, I would be very happy.”

When Skaggs was in the midst of launching his music career, country music was, well, country music. Today’s country music is often seen as watered down pop music with few artists making an effort to stand out from the pack. Asked for his thoughts on the current crop of country music stars dominating the airwaves, Skaggs is diplomatic in his answer:

“I can see artists making music now who are being led by what’s popular rather than where their heart might lie. Truth is, so few artists are really trying to do something different and something new.”

While others around him might consider retirement around his age, Skaggs anticipates making no such plans. In fact, he might not ever hang up his mandolin if he has anything to say about it.

“I had George Shea appear on my last record Mosaic and as far as I’m concerned, if he can still be making music at 101 years old, I’m going to be doing the same.

“To see the passion that that man has for music is just amazing; I find being around people like that to be both exciting and inspirational.

“I want to be making music until I die. I don’t want to kick back and just fade away. I think that people die when they have nothing left to look forward to and fortunately, I have something to look forward to each and every day. I want to make my life all about the gift that I have been given and be as faithful as I can be to that.”

Article published in November 5, 2010 edition of the Times & Transcript