Ricky Skaggs’ only live album to date has been “Live in London,” a 1985 Epic set recorded at the height of his country chart success. But with the March 25 release of “Live at the Charleston Music Hall” on his Lyric Street-distributed Skaggs Family Records label, Skaggs shows off his band, Kentucky Thunder — a group that has returned him to the top of the bluegrass world.
“It’s such a great band with some young, new players, and Bobby Hicks,” says Skaggs, singling out the veteran bluegrass fiddler who has been a Skaggs band member since 1981. “Bobby was going to retire in December, so we wanted to do a live album before then. And besides, the band is too good to do just studio work.”
Mandolinist/vocalist Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder (which also includes bassist Mark Fain, guitarist/vocalists Darrin Vincent and Paul Brewster, fiddler Andy Leftwich, banjo player Jim Mills, and lead guitarist Cody Kilby) performed at the Charleston, S.C., venue last April to great response, so the group decided to return Nov. 1-2, 2002, to record the live set, with Jeff Taylor adding accordion and penny whistle.
“We wanted to have some songs that people remember from [Skaggs’ recent bluegrass albums] ‘Bluegrass Rules!’ and ‘Ancient Tones’ and some new songs thrown in that the fans didn’t already have on their records at home,” Skaggs says. These include Harley Allen’s “A Simple Life” and Mac McAnally’s “Somewhere Nice Forever,” which was written in memory of the songwriter’s grandmother and personally resonates with Skaggs.
“I lost my mother almost two years ago,” he says, adding that his mother-in-law died last Father’s Day. “These women were so important in my life, and the song really [evokes] thoughts on the passing of loved ones.”
Also included on the set is Harry Chapin’s classic “Cat’s in the Cradle,” which Skaggs previously released on his 1995 Atlantic Records debut album, “Solid Ground.” He says the “simplicity” of the live version “allows the lyrics to really be heard.”
Other high points on the disc are a pair of new Skaggs-penned instrumentals, “Goin’ to the Ceili” and “Crossville,” as well as “The Old Home Place,” which Skaggs first cut with J.D. Crowe & the New South on that group’s legendary eponymous album. “It was kind of a bluegrass hit that no one’s covered since,” he says, “and there are so many new bluegrass listeners now that it’s virgin territory for them.”
In fact, Skaggs notes that the new live album is 95% virgin territory. “It’s really hard doing a live album, because you have to allow for some hickies and let the world see some imperfections,” he says. “But we didn’t want to overdub everything and make it a ‘studio live’ record.”
Skaggs Family Records GM Stephen Day says the label will target Skaggs’ core bluegrass fans foremost, as well as “the contingency of country fans that followed him over into bluegrass.” He also says “A Simple Life” may be serviced as a country radio single, and it has potential for Americana stations.
“We also want to seek out the jam-band market with some of the instrumentals, in particular the last cut, ‘Get Up John,’ which is almost a throwback to the ’70s because it’s a jam version that’s almost 10 minutes long,” says Day, who looks to “plant seeds” in that market via jam-band Web sites, bluegrass sites, and fan lists.
Day reports that Skaggs is helping his own promotional cause. “Ricky is on the phone calling retailers to thank them for their support,” he says, further noting that Skaggs will be highly visible on numerous TV programs. “We’re doing the ‘Today’ show on March 29, and a Bill Monroe tribute that was shot at [Nashville’s] Ryman [Auditorium] a few years ago with other bluegrass artists will be shown on PBS around the time that the album comes out. We’re just now finishing ‘The Three Pickers’ — starring Ricky, Doc Watson, and Earl Scruggs and playing off the Three Tenors — for PBS’ ‘Great Performance’ series for midsummer or early fall. And in April, PBS is producing another ‘All-Star Bluegrass Celebration,’ which we [also] did last year.”
Meanwhile, Skaggs is producing an album for Southern gospel label Daywind Records that features Sharon White, Connie Smith, and Barbara Fairchild. The project is tentatively titled ‘Love Never Fails.’ For his own label, he is developing three new bluegrass groups: Daybreak, Old School Freight Train, and Blue Moon Rising. And he is writing songs for an upcoming animated Disney feature starring the vocal talents of Dolly Parton, Travis Tritt, Ashley Judd, and Lou Rawls.
Skaggs is bringing Kentucky Thunder to Fort Worth, Texas, for four nights this month with the Fort Worth Symphony at the Bass Performance Hall. “Doing bluegrass overtures is fun,” says Skaggs. “We’ve played with symphony orchestras in Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Oklahoma, and hearing them play ‘Uncle Pen’ is great.”