Back in Blue
You'll excuse Ricky Skaggs if he's a little nervous. The bluegrass and country-music legend has won eight Grammy Awards, eight Country Music Association Awards and had 12 No. 1 singles, but that doesn't make it any easier for him to settle his stomach. Not when Skaggs, his family and his band are set to perform together for the first time in a show he's dreamed about doing for years: A Skaggs Family Christmas. The five-stop tour will include Skaggs; his bluegrass band (Kentucky Thunder); his wife, Sharon (whom O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack fans will know as part of the father-daughter duo The Whites); daughter Molly, 19; son Luke, 14; as well as three more members of the extended White family.
So, please, allow the man with three-plus decades of performing experience his butterflies. Kinfolk'll do that to you.
"We're just working on it in the living room, trying to get it presentable," Skaggs says. "I'm nervous for the kids, is what it is. Even so, it's been a mind-blowing experience for me. You know, you hear your kids singing along on the records, but you don't realize how wonderful it is, how wonderful they are, until you work with them live."
The Christmas show, which will mix bluegrass and gospel classics with some of the performers' better-known works ("We'll do 'Keep on the Sunny Side,' of course," Skaggs says), has been an idea that Skaggs has toyed with for years, but it wasn't until he was forced to call on his family to help him out of a bind that he realized just how good they could be.
This past summer, Skaggs and his family traveled to Atlanta for a show. Then Skaggs got word that the bus with his band had caught fire. Everyone was all right, but they were stranded and wouldn't make it on time to start the show.
"I said, 'Sharon, can you and Molly do something with me?'" They quickly rehearsed a few songs--Molly sings, plays accordion and banjo; Skaggs is a world-class mandolin player--and performed about an hour's worth of gospel hymns, instrumentals and bluegrass a cappella numbers for the audience until Kentucky Thunder could make its dramatic entrance. The next week on bluegrass night at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Skaggs added son Luke on the fiddle and experimented with the family sound again. Soon after, he told his agent to book some Christmas shows.
That Skaggs is putting together a show that combines bluegrass--plus honky-tonk and swing--with gospel music makes sense on many levels. Looking at bluegrass as a faith-based art makes sense when considering the music, as well as Skaggs and his career. It was Mitchell Jayne of the group The Dillards who said bluegrass did not have fans, it had "believers." In this context, is it fair to say that Skaggs, who began his career playing with Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris, lost his way during his successful country career in the '80s and much of the '90s?
"I don't think that's right," Skaggs says. "Even when I was putting out country records, I've always tried to take bluegrass with me. Even when George Strait and Reba [McEntire] and I were putting out number-one hits on the pop country charts, I was using mandolins and banjos and fiddles."
Skaggs' decision in 1997 to go back to his bluegrass roots doesn't seem confusing now, but at the time no one foresaw the success of the O Brother soundtrack and the youthful movement toward roots music throughout a cross section of genres. Skaggs says that for new and old fans alike, they still must support live bluegrass shows if they want to convert others to their musical belief system.
"If people want to know about bluegrass music, they've got to touch it, taste it, feel it, smell it," he says. "They've got to see it live. Because you can't be still when you listen to it. It's a total body experience. I think that's what folks will get out of this family show.
"If Dallas hears what I'm hearing in my living room, they'll be very, very pleased. It will be an emotional connection. I think it's something special."
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