Ricky Skaggs Talks Plugging Back In, Revisiting Country Classics After Decades of Bluegrass

Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for Civic Entertainment
Ricky Skaggs performs at Rosemont Theatre on Nov. 12, 2016 in Chicago. 

From 1981 through 1997, there was no country music entertainer more revered among their peers than Ricky Skaggs. The singer exploded onto the scene with a 1981 cover of Flatt and Scruggs’ “Don’t Get Above Your Raising,” and for well over a decade, the Kentucky native made traditional country cool to the masses. The singer topped the Hot Country Songs chart eleven times between 1981 and 1989. Then, in the 1990s, partly due to a promise that he made to Bill Monroe shortly before The Father of Bluegrass passed away, the singer returned to bluegrass, the music that gave him his start in the business. He’s done well with it, winning several Grammy Awards since, but his fan base has long hoped the singer would return to the sound that made him one of country’s most influential artists of his time.

Come Saturday, Sept. 2, they will get their chance.

The singer recently announced that he would be playing the Music City hotspot The Nashville Palace that evening, and he tells Billboard that he’s ready to plug in the electric instruments one more time.

“I love the music that I got to play in the early 80s through 1996,” he said. "1997 was when I started Skaggs Family Records, and started doing bluegrass full-time. I kind of just set the country music sound and my electric band and all of that on a shelf for all these years. I’d walk by and look at it every now and then, take my guitar out to the Grand Ole Opry and do ‘Honey, Won’t You Open That Door’ or 'Heartbroke' – just little spurts here and there. It just kind of whetted my appetite to do a whole show.”

So he put the wheels in motion. “We did a little test run just for fun, to see how it would be. That was during the CMA Music Festival on a Friday night. It was so amazing, and we had a ball. The people that were there at the Nashville Palace just loved it. It was refreshing to hear real country music again, for them – and for us too. Those were some great songs that I never get to do now that I’m doing bluegrass. We were able to have steel guitar, drums, and piano, as well as twin fiddles, which makes the country sound so good for me. It’s going to be a great night, for sure.”

Fans – and his fellow artists – will no doubt be in attendance that evening to witness what promises to be a magical performance by the man who made the classic cool to a new generation in the 1980s – in a totally bad-ass manner.

“We just tried to approach it as a good song is a good song, and it’s always going to be there,” he said of his re-introducing older hits to a young crowd. “I learned a lot about taking old songs and re-arranging them, My first single was ‘Don’t Get Above Your Raising’ back in 1981. It was fun, and I saw that it worked. ‘Crying My Heart Out Over You’ was something that I had heard Flatt and Scruggs do so many years ago. I always thought it would be a great country song. That became my first No. 1 hit. ‘I Wouldn’t Change A Thing About You If I Could’ was an old bluegrass song for Don Reno and Red Smiley that I took and re-arranged. ‘Heartbroke’ and ‘Honey, Won’t You Open That Door’ were also songs that had already been cut.”

Perhaps Skaggs’ biggest musical risk came in 1984, when he released the Monroe standard “Uncle Pen.” He says he owes the inspiration behind the track from "Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown" becoming the Gold-selling disc’s third single – and third chart-topper. “That was a very strange moment,” he admits. “I was listening to Bob Kingsley and American Country Countdown. I had a single out on the chart - ‘Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown’ maybe, Bob announced the song – saying it was wherever it was on the charts that week, but he said ‘Here’s the song that really excites me. It’s an old Bill Monroe cut.’ He begins to play ‘Uncle Pen.’ Hearing that song on the radio was so exciting. It blew the doors off of my car. I went to Joe Casey at CBS and stated my case. I said ‘Joe, I know you’re the guy who picks the singles, but I’m telling you Bob Kingsley just played this, and it blew the doors off of my car. We really need to think about this.' He just thought it was too risky. But it went up the charts and went No 1. Bob Kingsley was the reason that all happened, and I’m grateful it did.”

Another career highlight for Skaggs came in 1985, when he won the coveted Entertainer of the Year trophy at the CMA. At the time of his win, he was fresh off a triumphant concert album, Live In London. “We had such a great audience,” he recalled. “The British love traditional country music. You can’t do a live record, and have it all be brand new songs. You want audience participation, so you’ve got to recut things like ‘Cryin’ My Heart Out Over You,’ and the hits that you have that people recognize. We also did throw in some new songs, as well, like ‘Cajun Moon.’ That was such a fun record to do. We recorded that on one of the first digital devices that came out – it was a 32-track 3M. I remember that we flew two of those over to London from New York so that we could have one taped ending with about a minute to go, and we’d start the other tape at the same time, so we didn’t lose anything. It was a great way to record. We also did a video on it, as well. We had Elvis Costello join us on a song, which was wild. That was a fun record.”

Could the Sept. 2 lead to more such performances? Skaggs stopped short of saying that it would, but he’s hopeful. “In a perfect world, I’d love to do one night a month where we really promoted it, and people would know about it if they were in town that they could see our country show. But, there’s nothing set in stone just yet. We’re still testing the waters for our benefit. We’d love to do it. We’d have to find the right place to do it. If the Nashville Palace wanted do it, and it was something that worked for them, that would be great. But, right now, it’s one show at a time, and we’ll see how it goes.”

As one of the dominant performers of his era, what’s it like for Skaggs to hear from today’s top artists about how much his music influenced them? “Brad, Keith Urban, and so many of the young guys like Chris Young and Justin Moore have commented on how influential my country records were. Even Garth Brooks has been so vocal and so kind about the way that he’s talked about my songs and my music influencing him growing up. It’s so humbling to know that you have helped me, but Mr. Monroe helped me. Flatt and Scruggs and The Stanley Brothers really helped me.”

While it will be a fun night of music to see Skaggs back in amplified form, it also will hopefully serve as a reminder of his greatness to voters for the Country Music Hall of Fame. Other than Hank Williams, Jr, there is no more glaring omission for induction into the hallowed group of legends than Ricky Skaggs from the decade of the 1980s. From that era, George Strait, Reba McEntire, and Randy Travis are already in the Hall, and so is Garth Brooks, who says Skaggs’ induction should be a no-brainer.

"I would proudly trade my being in the Hall Of Fame for Ricky Skaggs being in the Hall Of Fame," Brooks says. "Ricky is one of the main reasons I play music. Skaggs is everything good music stands for.”