Ricky Skaggs is a musical icon in the state of North Carolina. He's won multiple Grammys in country music and bluegrass. He began his career with a TV appearance as a seven-year-old playing with Flatt and Scruggs. He moved onto Ralph Stanley's band as a teenager before working with Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and many others. He's widely considered to be one of the finest singers and players ever to pick up a banjo, mandolin, fiddle and guitar.
He's playing the Haw River Ballroom Friday night with his band Kentucky Thunder. Skaggs spoke with WUNC's Eric Hodge Friday on Morning Edition.
ERIC HODGE: Good morning Ricky.
RICKY SKAGGS: Hey, Eric. Good morning to you.
HODGE: Your latest record, Music To My Ears, sounds like a blueprint for your career. It's full of songs that straddle the line between progressive and traditional music, but you always add your own twist, and in this case it may be working with Bee Gee Barry Gibb on the song "Soldier's Son." How did that come about?
SKAGGS: Well, I met Barry back in 1997. It was the year that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame asked me to come up and do the induction of Bill Monroe into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is very strange. He just sent me a song one day and asked me if I'd take a listen to it and see if it was something I might want to cut, and when I heard it I loved it and I said, "Well, I'd love to cut it, and I'd love to cut it with you."
HODGE: On this record, you also add some electric guitar and piano to songs like "What Are You Waiting For?" That's not really done very often, it seems like, in Bluegrass circles. What prompted that? For you, there don't seem to be any boundaries.
SKAGGS: Because of my country music career, there's a lot of people out there that still show up at our shows and want to hear "Honey, Won't You Open That Door," "Heartbroke," "Highway 40 Blues," and "I Wouldn't Change You If I Could." We had 12 number-one country hits, so those people still like to hear the country things. I had a great career in country music and I'm proud of that and certainly thankful for it, so I thought this album would be good to be able to at least touch on some of the sounds that I was recording back in the 80s and early 90s. Obviously, there are some real, raw Bluegrass songs on this record like "You Can't Hurt Ham." We do a tribute to Doc Watson as well on there. We do "The Tennessee Stud," which is a song that Doc did. Doc passed away during the recording of this record and we really just wanted to honor him with a song.
HODGE: It must be moving for you to play that song, "...Tennessee Stud," live in your shows, and I imagine it will be especially poignant (Friday night).
SKAGGS: Well, we're looking forward to it. I love North Carolina. North Carolina was one of the first states, absolutely, that embraced me.
HODGE: I know you've got an autobiography coming out this summer called Kentucky Traveler. Looking back over your career, were there other moments that you reflected on in the book that you hadn't thought about in a long time that were either surprising to you or put a smile on your face?
SKAGGS: Well, just some of the Ralph Stanley stories back when I was a Clinch Mountain Boy. Me and Keith Whitley were 15 when we started working with Ralph, and I remember the first night that we went out on the road, it started getting dark and I noticed that we pulled off the Interstate highway. I kept thinking, "Where in the world are we going?" We pulled off on a dirt road and I thought, "This can't be the way to North Carolina. I mean, I know North Carolina has a lot of mountains, but this is strange." And then I notice the old fiddle player Curly Ray Cline gets a flashlight, gets off the bus and walks down in the woods, and then he came back up on the bus about 20 minutes later with a quart of this clear liquid stuff and I thought, "That looks like moonshine." And here me and Keith Whitley are 15 years old, my mom has trusted Ralph to take good care of us on the road, and I thought, "If my mom knew what we were doing..." Of course, I didn't drink it, but just being around it...
HODGE: Just the smell of that stuff when you're 15 probably gets you going.
SKAGGS: Oh yeah, there's no doubt about it.
HODGE: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder play The Haw River Ballroom tonight in Saxapahaw. His latest record is called Music To My Ears. Ricky, thank you so much for your time this morning. It's been a real pleasure.
SKAGGS: Well, it's been a pleasure talking with you, Eric. Thanks so much for having me.