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Unlike other boys growing up in the hills of eastern Kentucky, Ricky Skaggs learned to play the mandolin when he was 5 years old. Taught by his father, Skaggs was considered a prodigy and invited to play on a television show when he was just 7 years old. By age 15, he became a professional bluegrass musician and toured the nation. Music industry executives urged him to play more country music and he did, eventually receiving 14 Grammy awards for his recordings. Diane talks with Skaggs about playing bluegrass and country music for 50 years.
- Ricky Skaggs musician.
Watch A Clip
Ricky Skaggs reflects on what it was like to record a duet with Ray Charles. The track was called “Friendship.” “What a hard producer, but he squeezed all the juice out of my Adam’s apple,” Skaggs said about Charles.
Watch The Full Broadcast
Watch A Performance
Considered a child prodigy, 7-year-old Ricky Skaggs played several songs on TV’s Martha White Show in 1961.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music” by Ricky Skaggs. Copyright © 2013 Ricky Skaggs. Reprinted with permission of It Books. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Musician Ricky Skaggs has won 14 Grammy Awards for his bluegrass and country music hits. He's played with many of music's biggest stars, including Ray Charles and Emmylou Harris. In his new memoir, Skaggs reflects on 50 years of performing and provides a behind-the-scenes look at the evolution of these distinctly American styles of music. His new book is titled "Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music."
MS. DIANE REHMRicky Skaggs joins me here in the studio and I know many of you will want to talk with him. Give us a call 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to you, Ricky Skaggs.
MR. RICKY SKAGGSThank you for having me on your show. I've been looking forward to this for weeks now.
REHMOh, I'm so glad. And I am looking at the cover of your book which has a photograph of a very small Ricky Skaggs. How old were you then?
SKAGGSI was five years old. I think that is the only shot in existence of my first mandolin, of me playing my first mandolin.
SKAGGSYeah, dad bought me that when I was five and stuck it in my bed when he came in from work. He was a welder so he had to, you know, go around and find the best jobs he could find. Sometimes they would be in Ohio, you know, and we lived in Eastern Kentucky.
SKAGGSAnd so he would drive all night to get home just for the weekend to see us, mom and the kids, and then drive back on Sunday and get back ready for work maybe up in Ohio or so, in Michigan somewhere.
REHMHow many kids were there?
SKAGGSI had an older sister. She was the oldest and then an older brother and then me, then my younger brother. So I had two brothers and one sister.
REHMAnd your father taught you to play?
SKAGGSHe did. He showed me the little (word?) G, C and D chords. That's about all he knew. And of course that little mandolin, you couldn't get too many fingers on it, it was so small. So it just perfectly fit me.
SKAGGSAnd he was so smart, I think, to not start me on a guitar, something that was just huge for me. But this little mandolin became -- you know how people, little kids would drag a blanket around, that mandolin was my blankie, okay?
SKAGGSIt was just everywhere I went, that mandolin went with me.
REHMBut you took to it so easily.
SKAGGSDiane, when I put my hands around that mandolin, when I first woke up and there it was, it was like a spiritual thing took hold. I put my hands on the neck of that mandolin and it was the first time I felt wood and steel together with the strings and then the wood. And I'm still holding it, you know, all these years later, you know.
SKAGGSThere was just like a defining moment, even as a five-year-old. You know, I certainly didn't think about it then, that it was a defining moment, but I knew there was a connection. I knew that I was supposed to play because I loved it so much and I just played it all the time.
REHMHow soon, how quickly, did your father begin to teach you?
SKAGGSWell, you know, I'd been singing since I was three so mom and dad knew that I was, you know, was able to sing harmony with them, you know. They'd sing in church or they'd sing around the house and I would, you know, I'd join in and sing, just a little three-year-old.
SKAGGSAnd so dad knew that I was, you know, that I had some talent. And he had a brother that played mandolin and sang harmony with him, Uncle Skaggs. And uncle was a younger brother, dad's younger brother, but he got killed in World War II and it broke my dad's heart because not only was it a brother that he lost, but he lost a singing partner and a musician.
SKAGGSAnd so I think dad kind of made one of those inner vows that if he ever had a son or daughter that showed musical interest that he would buy them a mandolin and so I'm so glad that he started me on the mandolin because that was the right instrument to start on.
REHMAnd, you know, you were seven years old and invited on a television show. Do you remember that?
SKAGGSI do remember that. You know, I had just played with Bill Monroe at six years old in Martha, Ky., a little high school there in Martha. And so I think dad took that and that fueled him to be able to, you know, to use that to tell people that I, you know, could play music.
SKAGGSAnd so we made our way to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and got backstage somehow, you know, so I was standing back there playing the mandolin and Earl Scruggs walked by and he heard me sing and heard me play and you know, invited us down for an audition for their television show.
SKAGGSAnd you can actually find that clip on YouTube.
REHMAnd we've got it right here.
EARL SCRUGGSA good (unintelligible) like this (unintelligible) Earl Scruggs. What do you want, son?
SKAGGSI wanna pick.
SCRUGGSYou wanna pick?
SCRUGGSHe's back here with his mandolin, says he wants to pick.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1Put him on.
SCRUGGSPut him on? Take him on over there and let -- the mic it's just down to just about his size. What are you going to pick?
SKAGGSFoggy Mountain (word?)
SCRUGGSFoggy Mountain (word?) Let's hear it.
REHMThat is true picking.
REHMSeven-year-old picking. And by the way we got video clips of this recording up on the "Diane Rehm Show" website at drshow.org. How did that make you feel?
SKAGGSWell, it was the first television thing I'd ever done. And I got to tell you they sent out a card after we, you know, we did the show. They let, you know, let us know when it was going to be broadcast because they would take these shows and they would syndicate them and they'd be in Nashville one week and then they'd syndicate them out to another like Birmingham. They'd get it the next day and they'd play that.
SKAGGSSo it went around the country. So they told us when it was going to show in Nashville so you know, we got in from school. Mom had an early supper, got the dishes all done, put away. We're set in front of the TV and so, you know, we watched the first, you know ,10 or 15 minutes of the show and then they go to commercial and come back and that's when I was supposed to come out. And when I saw myself walk out on the television, I freaked out.
SKAGGSI did. I was so shy. I had never. I mean, television was fairly new to us...
SKAGGS...back then, you know, in the early '60s and so just being from the mountains of Kentucky, you know, I just hadn't seen a lot of that. And of course, we were living in Goodlettsville, Tenn. But when I saw myself, I ran into my bedroom and got under my bed.
REHMYou didn't watch it?
SKAGGSI did not watch it. I listened to it. I could stand to listen to it, but I could not watch it, you know. So for 30 some-odd years, I looked for that television show and no one had a copy. No one had a copy. And finally someone had a copy of it. After they'd passed away, their wife had given a bunch of different shows, you know, to the Hall of Fame and a friend of mine was down there one day and found that show and made me a copy and sent it to me.
SKAGGSBut here's another one. I've got to tell you my sweet little great-grandmother, Grandmother Carrie, and I think I talk about it in the book, when she saw me on television, she saw it when it was broadcast, you know, her and grandpa. She went up to the television and kissed it...
SKAGGS...and petted me, patted the television screen, thinking I could feel it.
SKAGGSIsn't that just the most precious thing in the world, that little great grandma?
REHMBut, you know, I'll bet you could.
SKAGGSI'm sure I could.
REHMI'll bet you could. I mean, you were practicing every single day. Is that correct?
SKAGGSI really was. I was playing it all the time. I mean, you know, and kids ask me, you know, today, you know, give me some advice. And I'll say, look, here's the advice I'd give you, you know. Certainly go back to the old wells of this music and really listen to the old stuff because if you can get that, then you can learn to play anything if you learn to play that stuff.
SKAGGSBut turn off your internet, turn off your Sony PlayStation, turn off all these things that eat your brain and eat your time because creativity is something that's in you and you need to let it out. You know, you can't just be creative sitting and playing video games all day.
SKAGGSGet an instrument, put it in your hand, let your mind wander, let your mind create. Come up, you know, let your heart get in touch with your, you know, with your creativity and come up, you know. So, and the dad will look down and say, son, see, I told you.
REHMWhat instruments did you bring with you?
SKAGGSI brought a mandolin today. I know we talked about Pee Wee and Pee Wee's in the book. He's a mandolin that -- he's kind of my prize possession. You know, Pee Wee Lambert that played with the Stanley Brothers back in the '40s and early '50s, I have his mandolin...
SKAGGS...that he recorded all those great Stanley Brother classics, "White Dove," "Angels are Singing in Heaven Tonight," "Lonesome River," "Fields Have Turned Brown," all the things on Columbia many years ago. So I have that mandolin as a prize possession, but he's having a little neck trouble these days...
REHMOh, I see.
SKAGGS...and so I had to leave him at home and I've got to get him fixed, but I do have a mandolin with me today.
REHMTake us out with -- We've got to go to a short break. Maybe you can take us out with a little something.
SKAGGSHere's a little "New Jerusalem."
REHMPerfect. Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, I have the pleasure of having Ricky Skaggs here in the studio. He is of course a bluegrass and country musician. He's received 14 Grammy Awards. He plays not only his beloved mandolin but violin, banjo, guitar and he sings.
REHMHe's now written a new book. It's titled "Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music". And if you'd like to join us call 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Talk about why you decided to write this book now.
SKAGGSWell, it was time. I'm not getting any younger. It was just time. You know, I had an offer from a publisher, gosh, eight or ten years ago to do a book. And I don't know. I thought about it and, you know, I had just started my record label in '97, Skaggs Family Records, and that label has been such a blessing because I'm able to do the kind of music I want to do when I want to do it.
SKAGGSYou know, music should never be argued over, you know, it just should be played and created, you know. So I was a little busy doing that and I just didn't feel like, you know, it was the right time. But Harper Collins came to me with a great offer and giving me the time that I felt like I needed to write it. This was written over a couple of years. It really took a while to do this.
REHMAnd what was the story you really wanted to tell?
SKAGGSWell, you know, it's funny. At the time, I can't say that I really was focused and knew exactly what I wanted to call it...
SKAGGS...knew exactly what I wanted to do, but I wanted to get a story out about my life and about, you know, my upbringing, about my parents, my mom and dad, my precious mother and dad. They were the best people, the salt of the earth people and the community of family that I grew up around. That front cover really tells it, I'm telling you.
SKAGGSThere's my grandpa. There's my dad playing the guitar. There's my cousin Euless playing the fiddle and I'm in the midst of my brethren. I'm in the midst of my precious family.
REHMAnd who's the little one that we see here?
SKAGGSYeah, and she just passed away recently, just about a year ago.
SKAGGSThat's my little sweet cousin.
REHMOh, I'm sorry.
SKAGGSBut her mother, Carlin (sp?), Pat Hodges, she's the one that found that slide for the front cover because it was going to be another picture. It was going to be a picture of me at seven years old with my mom and dad...
SKAGGS...on the front porch. But when we found that, Harper Collins said this is the one.
SKAGGSThat's perfect, you know, because there's a look in my eye right there that you can see in that. I'm so determined, yes.
SKAGGSThere's this, I just knew that this is what I'm supposed to do, you know. But I just felt like I wanted to tell a story about faith, family and music...
SKAGGS...and how those three things really shaped my life.
REHMTell me about your faith.
SKAGGSWell, a Christian -- I'm a born-again Christian and I feel like I'm a follower of Jesus. You know, I mean, we go to a Baptist Church, but we go to a lot of churches. My wife and I love visiting other churches and really trying to encourage other churches as well, you know.
SKAGGSChurches need a lot of encouragement these days. We're all getting a bad rap, you know, as far as being a Christian, you know. It's like we're against everything and that we're not for anything, you know. So I think and that's really not what our heart is, you know.
SKAGGSBut I believe in the Bible. I believe every word in it. My mother taught me to believe the Bible, taught me how to pray, taught me how to love Jesus and trust him and so I do. And you know, I've not lived a perfect life, you know. There's only one that has and that's the one I believe in, you know. But my faith has really helped me through so much disappointment, so much turmoil.
SKAGGSI mean, the music business can eat your lunch and pop the sack, you know, if you'll let it.
REHMHow difficult was it for you?
SKAGGSWell, you know, it was. It was hard being a Christian. It's almost like you wear it. Some people wear it as a badge, you know, so that they can, I don't know, they can use it against you. You know ,I never wanted to do that. To me, I'd rather let Christ be in me and love people because really we're commanded to love and we're commanded to forgive.
SKAGGSWe're not commanded to judge and yet we end up judging everything that's not like us or that we don't like. We judge it, you know, and Jesus is the righteous judge. That's what he's called in the scriptures so that's what I, you know, I'd rather him judge and let me love. Always err on the side of love and mercy and forgiveness.
SKAGGSYou know, the Bible says, what a man sows that shall he reap so if I sow love and I sow mercy and I sow forgiveness and I sow graciousness to people, then that's what's going to come back to me. I believe that.
REHMBut you did not see that all the way through your career?
SKAGGSNo, no, I haven't. I haven't.
REHMTalk about the rough patches.
SKAGGSThe rough patches, you know, I went through a divorce in my early years. I was married about seven years the first time. And I got so busy in my, you know, in my career that it was hard. And, of course, my ex-wife tried to be understanding, but I think she also didn't know how busy and how much away, how much traveling, how much work I would have to do. Even when I came home, I was booking, you know, booking a band Boone Creek and just working all the time, traveling.
SKAGGSSo anyway, that ended up, you know, in a divorce. But my faith really took hold during that time. I think I really, you know, I really made a re-commitment to my faith. Sharon, my wife now, 32 years, her and her family, the Whites are just, they're like the first family of the Grand Ole Opry, you know. They carry it like this Carter family mantle, you know, of the old songs.
SKAGGSThey were in the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" They were the Sunnysiders in that movie. So they are so solid as a Christian family and they helped me through a lot of hard times. But Buck and Patty, Sharon's mom and dad were great parents to me and a great source of encouragement.
SKAGGSAnd so Sharon and I now have, you know, two children, as well as my oldest two children and, you know, faith has just helped me through it. I mean, I had a son, my oldest son was shot by a truck driver around Roanoke, Va. when he had turned seven and I tell about this in the book.
SKAGGSYou know, his abilities. I mean, I wanted to kill the guy...
SKAGGS...I mean, golly, I wanted him to, you know, get, be in jail forever. But my son Andrew said, dad, we need to forgive him because he don't know Jesus. He just did something wrong and he needs, you know, we need to forgive him and...
SKAGGS...it was like so sobering and so like, yes. It was like the Lord said, listen to your son. Listen to the wisdom out of babes, you know, out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom. So I realized he was right and I was wrong and so. You know, but those kinds of lessons, you know, along the way.
SKAGGSGod still speaks. Everybody thinks that God is silent and he don't say anything anymore. He doesn't have to, but he does. He talks every day, if you'll just listen.
REHMTalks every day.
REHMAnd your dad talked to you a lot. He introduced you not only to older players in Kentucky, but you learned to play the violin and music going back centuries. How did that happen?
SKAGGSWell, dad was great about introducing me, as you said, to the old time musicians that he grew up listening to that were still alive there and he's from Kentucky. And there was a guy named Sanford Kelly that, you know, of course, my cousin Euless, who is playing the fiddle on the front cover of the book, you can see him, and I learned a lot from him. He lived in Columbus, Ohio, and I learned a lot from him.
SKAGGSBut then he was an old man, he was in his mid-70s when I met him, Sanford Kelly, and he was about -- he looked seven foot tall and wore six-foot-long overalls if you could picture that. And he had these really dark, black horn-rimmed glasses and he always looked over top of them as he'd play and so he's kind of a spooky-looking old cat, you know.
SKAGGSBut he played this old-time mountain fiddle style that absolutely stole my heart. What he played, it didn't make sense musically, but it made sense spiritually in my heart. There was something that he played. I've never heard a fiddle played like that before and I wanted to learn how to play that. I wanted to learn that style and learn what it was about that and came to find out there's a lot of it, you know. That was old Irish tunes, Celtic music that came over from Ireland and Scotland.
SKAGGSAnd then he played. He also played the clawhammer banjo, the old-time drop-thumb style banjo, not with picks, but with his fingers, you know. And I learned that style. And I used that style of playing every time I play the fiddle and every time I play the banjo I want, you know, I want to play that style.
SKAGGSBecause everybody plays Earl Scruggs' style, but not too many people play that old drop-thumb style banjo.
REHMLet's hear a portion of "Son of Hobart."
REHMYou're playing violin. You're accompanied by Keith Whitley and other band members.
REHMAnd you actually had Ralph Stanley ask you and Keith Whitley to play and tour with his band?
SKAGGSHe did. I was about 16 right there on that cut. You know, we talked about defining moments, you know, earlier. One at five years old when I met the mandolin and one, you know, at six years old when I played at (word?) but I had just met Keith Whitley.
SKAGGSWe were 15 and my dad and I was playing fiddle and guitar at this little fiddling thing that they had in Eastern Kentucky, sort of like a little gathering of music and Keith and his brother was playing in a band there. And so somehow me and Keith ended up in the boys' locker room downstairs, you know, and got to talking and got to visiting and everything like that, you know.
SKAGGSSo I said, well, who do you like? And, oh, I love the Stanley Brothers. Well, I love the Stanley Brothers too, you know. And so, do you know this song? And you know, yeah, and so we started singing and we ended up spending the next hour totally just alone, nobody else around, nobody to bother us. I mean, we just bonded immediately as brothers.
SKAGGSWe heard that Ralph Stanley was coming to Fort Gay, W. Va. which was a little place right across from Louisa, Ky. there where I went to high school and so we went to see Ralph. And Ralph's bus had broken down. He'd had a flat tire and he called the club owner and said, hey, we're going to be, you know, probably 45 minutes late, you know, just letting you know.
SKAGGSWell, the club owner had heard that me and Keith and, you know, we were there with my dad and Keith's brother, there to hear Ralph. And so the club owner come up and said, hey, did you all bring your instruments? Well, my dad was kind of -- he should have got rich on the American Express commercial, "Don't Leave Home Without It," you know.
SKAGGSWe all stuck our instruments in with us just in case we might have to be asked to play. So we went and got our instruments out of the car and came up onstage. And, of course, all we knew was Stanley Brothers' songs. So we're playing there for, you know, 15, 20 minutes and in walks Ralph, my hero. And he doesn't go to the dressing room like I wish he had of.
SKAGGSSo he pulls up a bar stool and just sits over there, totally by himself and listens to us play.
SKAGGSAnd in my peripheral vision, I can see him and I'm saying, please don't look at me, please don't listen to me. I was so shy and so embarrassed, you know. But that night really was a defining moment in my life because Ralph, he fell in love with me and Keith and asked us to come and do some shows with him, asked us to play on his break, get back up and play some more songs and...
SKAGGS...so we bonded as friends. And so we worked the summer when we got out of high school. We worked that summer with him. And then we went back to school and finished up our senior year and Ralph hired us full time to go on the road and be Clint's Mountain Boys. Oh, my God. And we got the matching coats and everything. We went to Cincinnati to the store that they bought these fancy-looking coats in and so we bought us some coats so we were in it.
REHMAnd then several years later, you started playing with Emmylou Harris...
REHM...and she called you Picky-Ricky?
SKAGGSYes, she did, you know. And I think the Whites probably may have given me that name first, but Emmylou certainly coined the phrase and had the authority to say it. I just always -- I think she called me that because I was so picky about what I did in the studio.
SKAGGSI wanted it to be great. You know, a record is forever. That's why you call them records. You have a record of what you did and so when, you know, we were playing those old tunes like we'd been playing on the air this morning, I hear those things and that's a record of where I was at 16 years old. That (word?) Scruggs' thing is a record of what I did when I was seven so, you know, maybe it's not the quality of what I do now at 59 years now, but still I want everything that I do to be quality.
SKAGGSI want it to be good. I want it to be the best I can do it at the time. You know, I don’t want to just slough off and say, oh, that's good enough. You know, I mean, I really want to be happy with it. You know, I think music is something. It is art and no good potter wants to have a flaw in his art, you know. No great artist wants to have a, you know, brushstroke that's out of touch or out of line with the rest of the picture because that's what people will focus on, is that mistake.
SKAGGSThey won't really look, stand back and look at the whole picture...
REHMYou're right, you're right. They do tend to focus on mistakes and what I love about what you're saying is clearly how strongly and genuinely you feel about it.
REHMIf you've just joined us, Ricky Skaggs is here. You're not only hearing him talk, you're hearing his music, which we will play for you throughout the hour. We're going to take a short little break here and when we come back, open the phones and talk about why music industry executives wanted you to play country music. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. I neglected to say that we are live video streaming this hour of "The Diane Rehm Show."
SKAGGSSo don't pick your nose.
REHMNo, I wouldn't dream of doing that and neither would you. So if you'd like to see Ricky Skaggs play his beautiful, beautiful instrument here, do tune in. Here is an email from Joe who says, "Your mother did not want you to sing the pinball song when you perform with Bill Monroe. What was it about that song and can you please share the story about the star studded memorial for Bill Monroe at the Ryman Auditorium after he passed away."
SKAGGSWell I kind of had two songs that I knew. One was called, "Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man." That's another great six-year-old song.
SKAGGSAnd then I'm an old hog holler. I drive a big truck. I got the pinball machine and it cost me bad luck. And all I ever made in a pinball machine -- I can't even remember the words now it's so long ago, but I think mom wanted me to sing something else besides the pinball machine in front of Bill Monroe. So that was it.
REHMCan you play a little of that for us?
SKAGGSGosh, I don't even think I remember that part.
REHMYou don't remember.
SKAGGSI promise I'll do something that I do know, though.
REHMDo something that you do know right now.
SKAGGSOkay. All right, okay. Well, here's a tune that I did with Jewish rabbi friend of mine, Andy Statman (sp?). I had him come down and play with me on a record -- on an instrumental record. This is called...
SKAGGSI had Andy's clarinet in here, but...
REHMI'm watching your fingers so carefully. It's just amazing how quickly they move.
SKAGGSWell, I want to say they move as quick at 59 as they did when I was 29, but I'm not sure I can lie that much.
REHMBut, you know, you mentioned doing that with a rabbi.
REHMHere's an email from Mike in Indianapolis who said, "I really love bluegrass music. I'm a Roman Catholic. Throughout history there have been masses composed by great musicians in almost every musical genre. Has Ricky ever considered composing a bluegrass setting for a Roman Catholic mass?"
SKAGGSWow. That would be great fun. I love -- I would love that kind of a challenge. That would be really, really cool.
REHMAwesome. I should say.
SKAGGSYeah, I've got two boys in my band, my bass player and a harmony singer, that's with me and they're both Roman Catholic so, you know, I may have to lean on them to find out what kind of music would be appropriate there, but...
REHMI think that would be wonderful.
SKAGGS...Yeah, I think the Lord loves -- the Lord loves bluegrass.
REHMAbsolutely. And here's a question from Donny in Lutz, Fla. Donny, you're on the air.
DONNYHi, two of my heroes.
DONNYGlad to be on here. My question for Mr. Skaggs was, and I happen to be a Roman Catholic. I attend Sacred Heart Catholic Church in downtown Tampa. It's definitely a metropolitan inner city type church. And, you know, doing our communion rite there we have a song that's probably known to a lot of people, "Down to the River to Pray."
DONNYAnd this song is, you know, I some Italian guy wrote it back in the 1940s. I don't know much else about it, but I've always wondered why, even though there's so much bluegrass throughout the fabric of the country, I'm told there's more members of the California Bluegrass Association than there are members of the American Bluegrass Association. That it's really not just the southeastern...
DONNY...United States or Appalachia.
SKAGGSOr Washington, D.C., which is a big hotbed for bluegrass.
SKAGGSThat's right, absolutely.
REHMAnd because of Lee Michael Demsey.
DONNYBut why is it, Mr. Skaggs, do you believe that this genre, which is absolutely soaked, drenched with talent, material, is not nearly as commercially successful as what they're now referring to as new country, which, to me, seems to morph into a very narrow category of music.
SKAGGSThat's a hard one to explain. I mean I kind of ran into the same -- the same problems when I came to Nashville in 1980 and got a record deal with CBS. Had I been playing bluegrass I would have never gotten signed, you know. The way I was able to slip bluegrass in was having, you know, doing more of a commercial country music sound for what they considered commercial with drums, piano, steel guitar, electric guitar and then add the bluegrass elements of mandolin, fiddle, banjo and acoustic guitar.
SKAGGSAnd we were successful with that for many years, but I don't, you know -- because my argument when I came to Nashville, when they would turn me down, you know, I would say well, if bluegrass doesn't sell why does Toyota, American Express, all these huge, you know, corporations, why do they use mandolin and fiddle and dobro and banjos on their commercials, you know. I mean it's a music that grabs people's ears.
REHMAnd let's hear one of your first number one country hits that helped you in one of your 14 Grammy awards.
REHMYou weren't sure that this was going to be a hit.
SKAGGSYou know, there was a sound in that record when we cut it I just knew that it was going to be a hit record. And it's really funny when I heard Mr. Buck, my father-in-law played piano on that. He's tickling the ivories in that. And I remember asking him when we cut it. I said, Mr. Buck, find us a really good dance tempo that people would dance to this in Texas because if we can have a -- if we can have a hit in Texas we can have a hit all around the U.S. because Texas was such a hotbed for country music, and, especially, danceable country music. That's what they love to do. They love to dance in Texas and Oklahoma.
REHMThat two step, yeah.
SKAGGSThat two step dance, that's right. So, you know, we -- he said well, you all play a little bit. So we'd play and he'd say, now that's a little fast. Slow it down just a -- lay it back just a little bit.
SKAGGSSo he was the one that set the tempo for that song there.
REHMPerfect. And it went straight to the top.
SKAGGSIt sure did. It sure did.
REHMThen during some of your performances Ray Charles approached you to record a duet. Tell us about that.
SKAGGSWell, Ray Charles has just gotten signed at CBS and they wanted to do a, you know, he'd had a lot of country hits back in his career, you know, "It's Cryin' Time Again" and all those great number one country hits that he had even when he was still, you know, a pop artist, R&B artist, but they signed him to do a country record with some artist in Nashville. And I'm just so thankful that I got to be one of the artists. They were mostly all, you know, CBS artists, which was great, but when he asked me if we could do a duet called "Friendship," you know, I just said absolutely. I really want to do this with you. It'll be so much fun so...
REHMThat's perfect friendship. Oh, that's so wonderful.
SKAGGSThat song makes me just laugh.
SKAGGSOh, my gosh.
REHMWhat was it like to be with him?
SKAGGSHe wore me out. He would, you know, we cut the track live and so, you know, I played acoustic guitar on it, you know. And so when it come time to do the vocals he'd say, now, you know, OK, now really get in it, you know, and then sing -- put your heart in it, you know. And so I'd sing it, you know. I thought I had my heart in it, you know.
SKAGGSAnd he said oh, now you're getting close -- you're getting close now. Come on, baby, you got it now, you know. And I'd sing it a little bit more. Oh, you hadn't convinced me. Convince me. Oh, my Lord, what a hard producer, but, you know, he got -- he squeezed all the juice out of my Adam's apple, you know.
REHMAnd let's go back to the phones to Jessica in Shepherdsville, Ky.
JESSICAHi, how are you all?
JESSICAI'd like to ask Mr. Skaggs how he feels about the general lack of interest in music in our public school system these days. As president of my daughter's high school band booster club I'm just totally frustrated by the lack of interest the school shows, the lack of funding and how can I possibly save the band. I can't sell enough donuts or coupons (unintelligible).
SKAGGSBless your heart.
REHMYeah, that's really hard.
SKAGGSWell, I'll tell you. I think that's the last thing they should cut out of, you know, out of schools. You know, I think all the emphasis -- so much is put on sports and sports always gets what it wants, always get, you know, the football programs, baseball, basketball programs. But music is something that's so near and dear to our hearts and it -- I mean, I'll tell you kids that play music their math skills are up, their communication skills are up, their reading levels are up.
SKAGGSAnd I just, you know, I'm a very, very strong advocate for music in the schools. I think that -- I think what NARAS does, what the Grammys does with music in the school programs that would be a place I would encourage you to go to is the Grammy people called NARAS. If you could go to their website and ask them, you know, what to do, you know, and how to be able to help because people donate instruments and that kind of thing, too.
REHMWe've got one last cut. It's from a new album that's coming out August 20, Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby live.
SKAGGSThat's my band, Kentucky Thunder. There's Andy Leftwich on the fiddle and Jimmy Mills on the banjo, Cody Kilby on the guitar, Mark Fain on the bass at that time and Bruce comes in here a little bit later and does a piano solo. And it's so much fun to tour with Bruce and play with Bruce. He has a real respect for the music and understands it. And we respect him so much as a musician that we take off and go places that we didn't think we could go, you know, musically, but Bruce takes us there. And it's so much fun to follow him and, you know, into places that he wants to go. Sometimes, you know, he'll just stop right in the middle of a song and take off into something else.
SKAGGSAnd you just have to listen to what he's going to be doing, you know, but he feels a freedom to do that with us.
REHMRicky Skaggs it was hard to lose your father.
SKAGGSOh, yeah. Well, you know, people would come up to me and say, you know, I'm sorry you lost your dad, sorry you lost your mom and that kind of thing. And I said, well, here's the way I feel about it. If something's lost that means you don't know where it is, but I know where my dad is and I know where my momma is. They're in heaven. And I'll see them again sometime. They're just not here on this earth in the present right now, but I know that what I believe in the Bible to be true is that I will be with them again and I'll be reunited with them again through Christ so...
REHMAnd Bill Monroe.
SKAGGSAnd Mr. Monroe I loved him and, of course, Earl Scruggs now has passed away and a great friend, Doc Watson, has passed away, too. And so many of my old heroes and the people that I love, you know. I know someone was asking earlier about the Bill Monroe salute that we gave him at his funeral, you know. And that was such an amazing day, you know, and something was -- there was a scripture that came to me that day, Isaiah 11:11, and it talked about in that day I will extend my hand a second time. And I really felt like God was saying I'm going to bless this music again a second time, not just for Bill Monroe's glory, but for my glory.
REHMRicky Skaggs, his new book is titled, "Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music." What a joy to talk with you.
SKAGGSDiane, it was a real, real honor to be here with you.
SKAGGSYou're a great interviewer here in D.C. and we all love you and I know you've got fans all over the U.S. so thank you for having me on.
REHMThank you. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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