Ricky Skaggs Interview: Blending His Life’s Passions on Mosaic

By: Rick Landers

The wholeness of the life of Grammy award winning multi-instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs, cannot be summed up in individual passions, but is a blending of influences of music, spirituality, family life, and friends that are reflected, much like his latest CD, into a patchwork of armament, a personal “mosaic”.

Skaggs is a big man, with a mane of graying hair and an uplifting smile. But, within the sphere of music, he started out at the age of 5, and was soon recognized as a musical prodigy, being featured on country music stations playing his mandolin and singing. His music talents have brought him world-wide recognition and fame. His work has earned him 14 Grammy awards, with the first in 1983, a Best Country Instrumental Performance, shared with J.D. Crowe, Jerry Douglas, Todd Phillips and Tony Rice for the album, Fireball. In 1982 he won a Best Male Vocalist of the Year award from the Country Music Association awards and would be honored six times by the CMA.

He and his group, Kentucky Thunder, have won a staggering 8 Instrumental Group of the Year awards from the highly respected International Bluegrass Music Association. With his formidable musicality and willingness to experiment with musical styles and instrumentation, he has helped reinforce and promote traditional country and bluegrass music in a way to attract a much broader audience. None other than the legendary guitarist and producer, the late Chet Atkins, claimed that Ricky “single-handedly” saved country music, that had been fading away in a world of rock, pop, rap, and world music.

On his first solo album, Ricky Skaggs Solo: Songs My Dad Loved, Ricky paid tribute to his father, Hobert, by playing the music his musician father loved and in a way that he said, “…this is how I would’ve wanted him to sound”. Today, Ricky, a father of four, had two of his children join him on his latest venture, his 2010 CD release, Mosaic. His daughter, Molly, is featured on a haunting track called, “I’m Alone Now” and his musician son, Lucas, contributed his skills and talents to several of the songs.

Ricky’s musical talents roam around a variety of instruments that included, but are not limited to, guitar, mandolin, banjo, Oud [Turkish] and more. During the recent Winter NAMM convention in Anaheim, California he showed up at the Paul Reed Smith Guitar “artist meet and greet,” where Paul announced that Ricky and Kentucky Thunder band mate, Cody Kilby, will have their own PRS Signature acoustic guitars under development in 2011.

Guitar International has met the talented and gracious Ricky Skaggs on several occasions and recently had an opportunity to hear his Mosaic CD, that blends spiritual music with bluegrass, Middle-Eastern music, pop and country, and in a manner that honors his gifts, his spirituality, his family and his beloved fans.

Ricky Skaggs PRS Experience

Ricky Skaggs Experience PRS Photo: Rick Landers

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Rick: On your latest album Mosaic, you show that music can be a lifelong passion, because you’ve got 101-year-old George Beverly Shea contributing to it. Can you give us a little background on how it came about that he got on the record?

Ricky Skaggs: We called him Gospel Music 101. [Both laughing] He’s 101. He’ll be 102, I think this month. I’ve known George Beverly Shea since I started working with the Graham Organization back in the ’80s. I guess it was the mid-80s, maybe ’86 or ’87 was my first Crusade with Dr. Graham. It was up in Columbus, Ohio and I was the musical guest. George Beverly Shea was there, sang a couple of songs for Dr. Graham, as well.

The more I was around the Grahams, the more I got to see all the players and all the people that helped put together the whole part of the Crusade. I got to know them and he was so gentle and his voice was so robust even at his age then, in his eighties.

Over the last three or four years, Dr. Graham has not been able to travel, go out and do his Crusades. I got to be able to go over and visit Dr. Graham at his home in Montreat, North Carolina, because Franklin and I, [Dr. Billy Graham's son] we’ve been great friends. We hunt and fish together and I’ve gone to Croatia and Bosnia with him and different things.

We’ve been to a lot of different countries together doing missionary-type things. In my going over and seeing Dr. Graham, I also got to go to Bev’s house and see him and Carlene, his beautiful wife. So I was just at his house one day and I said, “Bev, I would really be honored if you would sing on a record with me sometime, if I could get you to sing on one of my records.” He was starting to be humble and everything, “You wouldn’t want an old voice like mine on your records.” “Bev, I would be so honored to have you on my record.”

Anyway, long story short, he agreed to come be on this record and we didn’t know exactly how we were going to use him at that time. The only thing I knew for sure was I wanted him to sing, “I’d Rather Have Jesus”, the song he’s most famous for. He wrote the melody to a poem that had been written, put the melody to it. Because he was 101, we thought maybe we’ll send a bus after him and Carlene, one of the nice tour buses and he can get on the bus and rest and go to sleep and all that.

Then I thought, “How’s he even going to climb up on the bus?” That’s not gonna work. “What we’ve got to do guys, is we’ve just got to take a road trip. We’ve got to load up some microphones and a recording system and some stands and throw a couple of guitars in the car and take off and drive over and see Bev at his house and just record him thataway.”

So we called and had a date set and he kind of got a little touch of laryngitis. It wasn’t pneumonia, but I think he caught a cold. We had to postpone that one and set it up for a different time, but we got over there and just being around him, he is so passionate and so excited. At 101, he’s still so passionate about music and about singing and about sounds. All these things still excite him at that age and here I’m a little more than half his age, but still at 56.

There’s quite a difference there. Just to see him, to sit and have lunch with him. He immediately starts talking about music. He immediately jumps into singing or a sound that he’s hearing, or he’ll start quoting the words to a song. Not just be talking it, not singing it, but he’ll be chording some words of the song.

Bev is so sharp at 101. His mind is still so sharp, razor sharp. He can remember dates. He can remember places they were at certain times. “In 1947 we went here and then ’54 we went here.” He talks about Dr. Graham. He calls him Bill. There’s all this wonderful history about him. You just feel like you’re standing in the presence of royalty when you’re around him. I just wanted him on this record. I wanted to honor him more than anything.

I didn’t necessarily want for him to do something for me as much as I wanted to honor him before all the people that know Ricky Skaggs and listen to my music, I want them to know the greatness of George Beverly Shea and not necessarily his greatness now, but I wanted them to know about him as a person that had a tremendous career in the ’30s and ’40s and yet he laid all of that down to go into basically full-time ministry with Billy Graham.

He was a singing sensation. He sold records for RCA Victor and was on the radio all the time. The guy had a career, a big career, and yet he humbled himself and gave that, kind of cast that whole thing aside to serve the greater call, to go to work for Billy Graham, and has never looked back, never looked over his shoulder, never wondered what it would have been like to have stayed in the business.

Could I have been rich? Could I have been more famous? Could I have all these Dove Awards, all these Grammys? What could I have had? But, he was laying treasures up in Heaven, not here on the Earth. I wanted people to know that part of George Beverly Shea.

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Rick: What’s the toughest part of making a new album like Mosaic? Is it the startup, getting everybody on board and developing the organization part of it or getting to the finish line and trying to get it into the hands of listeners? Actually, doing the last 5 percent?

Ricky Skaggs: Boy, we’ve just been discussing that here at the office, even this morning, the latter part. Obviously, for me the most fun and rewarding part, well, I can’t say the rewards. Let me back up. The most fun part to me, the part I really enjoy and the part I feel like I do best and do my job is the making of the record, choosing the songs, getting the musicians in on the project and doing it this way and that way and trying different vocal mics to find something. The technical part of it, that’s the part I really, really like. The creation part of it.

Rick: The process.

Ricky Skaggs: The process. Which guitar do we play? Let me try a couple of different guitar sounds. Which one sounds the best as I’m speaking to my engineer? What pick sounds best? Let me give you two or three pick sounds. We get down to the fine hairs, those short hairs of creativity, because all those little things matter. They all make a different sound.

Do I use a Fender plastic pick or do I use a thicker tortoise shell pick? It’s crazy, you know. Do I use light gauge strings or medium gauge strings? Do I want to use bronze or steel? You can go crazy doing that stuff, I guess, but after the years of knowing that there’s a difference, you finally just go in there and play and everything sounds fine. That’s my favorite part.

The hardest part, I think, actually comes after the record is totally finished, all mastered, mixed, everything’s put together. All the art work is done. Here’s the package now, to get it out to the people. That’s where we are right now. That’s the hard part. I think it’s the easiest place to stumble and fall.

The Ark’s not easy to carry. There was a specific way that God told the Levites to carry the Ark and when King David found it 150 years later in somebody’s house, he thought, ‘This needs to get out of this house. It needs to go back to the Tabernacle here. We’ll send a cart and an ox. We’ll throw it on there. We’ll carry it back to the Tabernacle. (It wasn’t a temple at that time. It hadn’t been built yet.)

Rick: Right.

Ricky Skaggs: So, they put the Ark on this cart and they take off with it and the story goes that the ox hit a rock. The Ark started moving and they were thinking it was gonna flip over and fall off on the ground, so this guy reaches his hand out and steadies the Ark to keep it from falling off. God strikes him dead for touching the Ark. [Both chuckle] It was never to be touched, you know?

Rick: Yes.

Ricky Skaggs: So, David gets all mad and gets mad at God and has him a little crying spell and mad spell. Finally God gives him a plan of how to move the Ark. With Mosaic we’re trying to figure out, are there certain people that are supposed to carry this or are there certain people who are not supposed to carry it?

Rick: This is important, yeah.

Ricky Skaggs: It is very, very important. There may be people that have carried Ricky Skaggs music in the past and done a good job with it, but this record is something so, to me, dear and near to the heart of God, the way the whole record came down, the way the whole record was done, the sound of it, the lyrics. Everything about it I feel like is just heaven sent.

So, I feel like part of our journey here in this thing is to seek God on how we move this thing out there, how we move the Ark of his presence, how we get it out to the people, with the booking agency, the record people, the radio people, the promoters, the PR, all this stuff.

It’s all important, from those picks that give a different sound and the strings that give a different sound, the guitar that gives a different sound, the microphone choice. It doesn’t work with this guitar because this guitar’s got too much low end and whatever. All these little things play an important part and we can’t say that it’s too small or too big.

Ricky Skaggs PRS Experience

Ricky Skaggs PRS Experience Photo: Rick Landers

Rick: Yeah.

Ricky Skaggs: So that’s the hard part right there is, after a record is done, but I know one thing. I’m not off to the next event. I’m not off to the next musical thing, whatsoever. I’m committed to Mosaic. I’m still gonna continue playing bluegrass. I’m still gonna continue to do my country songs. I am gonna do Mosaic.

We’ve got to figure out a way that we can do a musical Mosaic of my life, of my music that I’ve had for 40 years. This 40-year journey, we started talking about the children of the wilderness, God always spoke in 40s, so I think it’s no coincidence that this is the beginning of my 40th year, in 2011. It’s gonna be interesting to see what all happens.

Rick: It’s interesting how you talk about how your music has evolved. Could the 20-year-old Ricky Skaggs have come up with Mosaic or did you find that your life experiences cast their own spell on making this album?

Ricky Skaggs: Well, experience is obviously the greatest teacher. I’m not sure I could have. I listen to myself as a 20-year-old. I’ve gone back and listened to my music. No, I was not ready to do Mosaic. This is a poppa, an elder. This is a voice of one crying out in the wilderness. Return to the Lord. This is the hair and everything [Both Laughing]. I think of even my long, growing-out, gray hair that I’ve got. People come up and say, “Man, you sound like an Old Testament prophet.”

Even with all that, there’s no way that a 20-year-old Ricky Skaggs could have done this record. No way. It would not have sounded like this and I don’t think I was at a place in my heart where these songs would come out of a pure heart. I can’t say that my heart’s always pure. I want it to be. I pray that God keeps it pure, but I know when I was 20 years old, the purity of my heart was not like it is now.

I’ve got four kids which I didn’t have at the time. Those things change. Those things make you a different man and just my 47 years trying to walk with God. I think I was 13 when I gave my heart to Christ, asked him to be my savior and really came to a place where I knew I needed that. It was years later that that stuff started making sense to me and the words in the Bible started making sense. To answer your question, there’s no way.

I don’t even think that a 40-year-old Ricky Skaggs would have done the record the same way. I came back to bluegrass in 1996 really and that would have been, gosh, I was 42 years old. I’m just not sure that I could have done that then either. It all has to deal with God’s time. This was the time for me to do this record.

Rick: Yeah. It’s a great record. I was a bit surprised when I listened to the CD for the first time and I heard “I’m Awake Now” that you had Molly singing on. A lot of times that doesn’t really work with albums, when someone new comes on unexpectedly. But, she really has a pure, beautiful voice and that actually did fit the record well and I listened to that probably as much as I listened to any other track on the CD. When did you first realize that she could sing?

Ricky Skaggs: Sharon [Ricky’s wife] and I knew she was going to sing when she was in the back seat with a pacifier in her mouth. We were driving down the road and she was like, I don’t know, two or three years old and she was going, “Mm mm mm, mm mm, mm mm.” [Hums the Mickey Mouse Club theme song]

Rick: Mickey Mouse.

Rick Skaggs Mandolin

Rick Skaggs Mandolin Photo: Rick Landers

Ricky Skaggs: She had the notes down and she was humming them with that little “paci” in her mouth. She was just humming it out of her nose and her head. We looked at each other and said, “Is that Mickey Mouse?” “Yes it is.” She was humming it.

Proud parents, but we knew at an early age that she had something special. She was on TV with me when she was like six years old on the Ralph Emery Show singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” for a Christmas show.

Rick: Cute.

Ricky Skaggs: She wasn’t a bit scared, wasn’t a bit intimidated with the band. She just knew what she was gonna do. When I heard “I’m Awake Now” as a demo, I immediately thought about Molly and I thought, “Oh, God. I can’t let her sing a song about a little girl dying. I can’t stand thoughts of that.” Then I got to thinking, “Well, wait a minute. How many people out there need to hear this song about their lost child or their lost son or daughter or Dad or Mom? Y’all are worrying about me. Y’all are fussing about me. Y’all are standing beside my bed and you’re looking down at me thinking I’m dead, but I am awake. I am not dead. I’m alive.”

So, I thought if she can bring that message and bring people to a place of peace in their heart for their loved one, then I can certainly suck up and stand the fact that she may be singing about something that I don’t ever want to happen to her. Don’t be so selfish here. Let her sing it. That was the right call.

Rick: And maybe it will give some people comfort.

Ricky Skaggs: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve already heard comments from people that said that they have played this for people that have really found comfort in this song.

Rick: That’s good. Mosaic doesn’t have a distinct bluegrass or even a gospel sound, although it’s got Christian-laden lyrics. Your website likens it to the Beatles, but when I was listening to it, I heard a little bit of maybe Seals and Crofts, even Bread. What influences did you have as far as the music to Mosaic, besides maybe the Beatles?

Ricky Skaggs: Gordon is a big fan, he’s an incredible study of the Beatles. He even has a Beatles band that he plays in.

Rick: Oh, does he?

Ricky Skaggs Experience PRS

Ricky Skaggs Experience PRS Photo: Rick Landers

Ricky: So, a lot of his acoustic guitar riffs and some of his stuff is very George Harrison sounding to me. A lot of the melodies and lyrics he sings sound McCartney-ish to me. So that was things like “Picture” almost could have been on a Sgt. Pepper’s sounding thing. Even the first tune, “Mosaic”, has a, to me, kind of a Beatles-y kind of thing.

I don’t know. When I was a kid I remember going and playing a talent show when I was like seven, eight years old. I won a transistor radio. That transistor radio opened up the nations to my brain, to my hearing.

Here was a kid from eastern Kentucky that lived up a dirt road, up the holler about five miles up from the main highway in the woods, and yet I was able to hear sounds from every kind of music there was out there. I was listening to the songs of the ’60s. I could get Ft. Wayne, Indiana, from Kentucky where I lived so I was listening to WOWO Ft. Wayne.

They played everything, all the good music from the ’60s that was coming out, yet I could turn the channels and find Mexican music. I could find jazz music. I could find swing. I could find classical music and I could find old country. That was the days of Web Pierce and Ray Price, George Jones, Buck Owens, Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline.

Rick: Oh, yeah.

Ricky Skaggs: I was hearing all of that as a kid in the ’60s. Bluegrass music was eight years old when I was born.

Rick: Really?

Ricky Skaggs: Eight years old. I wasn’t even 10, so I grew up at a time when a lot of things were just getting birthed and a lot of great music was coming out. They played bluegrass; they didn’t call it bluegrass back then. They were playing Bill Monroe, Flat Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers on the same country station that they play George Jones and Buck Owens and Patsy Cline, people like that, Red Foley. There weren’t bluegrass stations.

Rick: It was like country or western swing.

Ricky Skaggs: Yeah, I was hearing Bob Wills, unbelievable great music. It was a great time to grow up. When I think about all of the mosaics that have been in my life that have had an influence, I hear all that stuff on this record musically. I don’t hear just one sound. I hear old and new coming together.

Ricky Skaggs and Cody Kilby Experience PRS

Ricky Skaggs and Cody Kilby at Experience PRS Photo: Rick Landers

Rick: Your final track, it’s called “Spontaneous Worship,” sounds like it has a lot of layers to it musically and spiritually and there’s a feel of world music to it in places. How did that come about? Is that really spontaneous? I know your son’s into world music and I think your daughter is as well. How did that get influenced, or how did it get pulled together, that particular track?

Ricky Skaggs: We didn’t plan it, I’ll put it that way, when we were putting the record together. One day, Gordon and I came here and we were listening to the ending of “Return to Sender” at slow speed and a thing that plays on the synthesizer, kind of plays this really low kind of thing. I thought we ought to just let that go and let Luke and this guy named Stephen Roach, this guy he plays with in a band called Songs of Water.

They play in this group. They’re from Winston-Salem. That’s where Luke lives. We thought that would be so good because that’s what Molly and Luke are really good at. They’ve been playing in worship bands for the last three or four years over in North Carolina and I just felt like that they had such the sound of nations in their music. They love all kinds of music.

Last night, me and Luke, he’s here for a visit right now, we were all up on YouTube. I had my iPad out and he had the computer out and we were just going. I had this oud that I had bought in Barang years ago, so he was tuning it up, trying to tune it up and trying to play it. So he got online and looked up this oud player and the whole band and Middle Eastern music.

We’ve got this wonderful friend that lives here in Hendersonville, Tennessee, where we live and he has this Syrian restaurant called Cafe Rakka and it sits in the liner notes on the record. On the back there’s a special thanks to Cafe Rakka. This guy and his wife, they make this unbelievable Syrian food that’s like recipes that are a thousand years old.

Anyway, we would go there probably two days a week when we were working in the studio. We’d go down there for lunch or eat there for dinner. So, they were in the process and that was just what we were working on. Riahd, which is the chef there, his grandfather is a Sufi Muslim from Syria and they’re kind of like the Pentecostals of Muslims.

They’re the ones that jump and dance and run and have a great time. They’re the musicians, the worshipers so to speak, kind of mystics. Anyway, he said, “I’m gonna call my grandfather because my grandfather played a drum in this Syrian worship band that they have.” I said, “I’d love to have the drum from your grandfather,” so I think it might have been his great-grandfather, actually. He’s up in his 90s now. He came out of retirement and made me a drum.

Rick: Really?

Ricky Skaggs: For this project.

Rick: Oh, how nice.

Ricky Skaggs: And he killed a goat, skinned it and put this goat skin on it. He made the hoop and everything out of wood, tanned the hide. It took like six months to get it.

Rick: Traditional.

Ricky Skaggs: He sent me the drum right before we did the “Spontaneous Worship,” so some of the drum music on there is from Riahd’s grandfather. We really wanted to get the sound of the nations in this “Spontaneous Worship” because I feel like the Scripture tells us that God gave us the nations for our inheritance. He’s given us the Nations.

I just feel like we need to take this kind of music to the nations. That was something that was kind of always in the back of our minds was how can we make this sound like every nation, every tribe, every drum coming together to worship, because that’s really what Heaven’s gonna be like, especially when it comes to music.

That was the whole premise of doing “Spontaneous Worship.” We brought a hurdy gurdy in. We brought a hammered dulcimer in. All those middle Eastern sounds with the drums and all that kind of stuff and then I got the banjo and the fiddle and we got that middle eastern Kentucky from Appalachia. It was just a wonderful thing and a wonderful experience. You wouldn’t believe the amount of people that absolutely love that track.

Rick: Yeah, it’s a beautiful track.

Ricky Skaggs: They love the spontaneity of it. Once something is recorded, it’s not too spontaneous anymore, you know. But, that’s how it started out anyway. We didn’t want to call it like a name title or something like that, but really we wanted folks to know that we wanted to have an opportunity to really worship there. That’s how all that came about. Much of it is from my son and Molly wasn’t a part of that there at the end. But, my son pretty much helped put that together there for sure.

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