In which the author interviews a bluegrass musician of some repute in re: his new record Songs My Dad Loved.
Ricky Skaggs: I’m having my first cup. [The author assumes Mr. Skaggs is referring to a cup of coffee, but does not inquire further.] So I’m good.
Where are you?
You’re not the type of country musician who moves to L.A.?
No, no. I never had to repent for that. When I worked for Emmylou Harris in the 70s, I didn’t move out there, but I lived out there a lot. There was times that I’d go out and spend two or three weeks a time in a hotel, working on her records…but I never moved out there. I’ve lived in Kentucky, in Northern Virginia—-Manassas. I lived in Lexington for a pretty good piece. But I’ve lived in Hendersonville, Tenn., since August of 1980.
Is there something essential about geography in country music? Can you even make this music in L.A.?
You can. But being raised in downtown Brooklyn or in Manhattan, I think it would be hard to sing about the mountains. It would be hard for someone to sound like Doc Boggs coming out of Manhattan…but when you hear Gillian Welch [hometown: NYC] and Nickel Creek [hometown: San Diego]….they’ve gone back and they’ve learned these songs from the 40s and 50s.
So—-does that mean that the circle is unbroken?
My family poured music into me. A good father is someone that sees potential in his kid—-what his son likes and excels at. A good father massages that and builds it up. That’s a good father. Now, I had a good father who was also a musician. He played guitar and sang. He poured it into me as a father and as another musician. He saw that I had the talent to go farther than just being a weekend player. He saw that I really could have a career and make it in the business. If he had not seen that and poured that into me, I may have quit years ago.
It’s been a destiny of mine to do what I’m doing. My dad was a huge part of pouring that into me and spending time with me and not making me practice, but making me want to practice. I loved my dad and I loved to do things with him and we would play. I started playing fiddle when I was 13. It was a great way to grow up. And my mother too. One of these days I’ll have to do a record for my mother.
Having been on a major label, what’s it like to run your own?
I’ve run my own label for 13 years…What I love about having a label is the freedom to make music. Had I gone to Sony with an idea—-Songs My Dad Loved—-they would have laughed. “This won’t sell.” Had I gone to them with [1997’s] Bluegrass Rules…I actually offered that to Atlantic. They listened, but they said, ” It’s nothing we can really work with.” They said, “Take it yourself.” I did offer that to them. It sold 200,000 copies. For a bluegrass record, that’s huge.
Can country music outlast the genre mixing and mashing that “the kids” insist upon today? Or will it be absorbed into something else?
If [country] stays on the American Idol scene where its videos want to look like VH1 and the sound wants to be so far away from country and be more pop and be more absorbed by the pop listener where someone buys a John Mayer CD and a hip-hop CD and a Taylor Swift CD—-there’s hardly any differentiation anymore. It’s like country music doesn’t have a sound. When “Sweet Home Alabama” sounds country…[Skaggs, contemplating a world in which Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s “Sweet Home Alabama” sets the standard for country, seems to shudder.]
[“Sweet Home Alabama”] sounds like everything that’s coming out of Nashville. We’ve really gone in a different direction. But that’s one of the things that sparked me to go back and discover that deep well of water that’s still there. There’s still a pure taste in this old music. There’s things to discover. There’s new music there…
I don’t care if it’s 2010. You can go there and be back in the ’30s and ’40s and thank God that we’ve got recordings from back then. Raccoon and I has this discussion here not long ago. [The author isn’t sure whether “Raccoon” is Skaggs brother, bandmate, attorney, doctor, or dentist, and, though he could probably find out with a quick Google Search, prefers the presence of an unidentified man (or woman!) named “Raccoon” in this interview.] There’s so much. Why would we wanna fight and fuss over this new music that’s being played these days when we can go back and glean from all these great old players?
Legendary coal miner/banjo picker Doc Boggs re-emerged when you were a teenager. Did you ever see him?
No. I was born in ’54. Doc was playing the Smithsonian…but gosh man—-he was old. He was an old cat. There’s a lot of his music that’s hard to find. He was barely able to sing and play even then. Old guys that just came out of the mountains…thank goodness that those guys made a sound and added their thumbprint to the music. Is it perfect? No. Is it awesome and does it got a spirit to it that moves your heart? Yes.
We’ve tried to make perfect records for so long that we’ve overdubbed the heart and soul out of something. We want to have a clean slate when we put something out. That’s what I love about Songs My Dad Loved. There’s hickeys in it.
Ricky Skaggs plays tonight and tomorrow night at 7:30 p.m. at the Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria. (703) 549-7500. $35.