Ricky Skaggs is a living bluegrass legend who came up under the late, great Bill Monroe. He’s forged a prolific career of over five decades. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, known for his astounding command of the mandolin, which he started to play at just five-years-old. He shared the stage to play it with Monroe when he was just six.
Skaggs has received scores of accolades across the years, including winning 14 Grammy Awards out of 29 nominations. He’s a member of the Grand Ole Opry and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Last year, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He’s released 32 studio albums and still plays live shows across the country.
Skaggs sat down with award-winning newsman Dan Rather for an in-depth interview on AXS TV’s captivating original profile series, “The Big Interview.” The pair chatted about many things during their time together. Below are five things Skaggs revealed during his candid and casual interview.
1. The first song he remembers singing is “Jesus Spoke to Me.”
Skaggs grew up in a faith-based family in Kentucky and he recalled his mother singing a lot of hymns. When asked if he remembered the first song he sang, he told Rather his mother used to sing “When Jesus Spoke to Me.” He sang a few lines for Rather and told him, “I would sing on the chorus because I heard her sing it to Dad.” This is back when he was about three-years-old. He and his parents attended church when he was young and started singing there.
2. The doctor who delivered him predicted his music career.
Skaggs is a great storyteller. When Rather asked him if he wasn’t a musician, would he have followed his father as a welder or maybe be a preacher. He told Rather when he was born and issued his first cry, he told his mother – “He’s got a healthy set of lungs. He’s either going to be a singer or a preacher.”
3. He credits Emmylou Harris for helping him breakout as a country singer.
Known for his work as a bluegrass artist, Skaggs departed from the genre for a period of years in which he turned to neotraditional country music. He credits his breakout to Emmylou Harris, who wanted Skaggs to join her band. He told Rather he wasn’t ready to leave bluegrass then. But, Harris let him sing large parts of songs on her records, which got his name out there on the credits. When Harris took a year off to have a baby, he forged forward with his career in neotraditional country music and it took off.
4. He loved Keith Whitley like a brother.
Skaggs met guitarist Keith Whitley when they were both in their mid-teens. They opened together for Ralph Stanley. Whitley struggled with alcohol addiction and died from alcohol poisoning in 1989. Skaggs revealed he and Whitley stayed in touch through the years, telling Rather “because we loved each other like brothers. I loved him.” The last he saw Whitley, Keith was married to Lorrie Morgan and Skaggs’ youngest son, Luke, was just born. He added, “Keith died way, way, way too young.”
5. He returned to bluegrass after promising a terminally-ill Bill Monroe he would keep the genre going.
Bluegrass icon Bill Monroe is frequently referred to as the founder of bluegrass. He was Ricky Skaggs’ mentor and a huge musical influence in his life. Skaggs started his own label and returned to the genre. When Monroe was very ill, he told Skaggs he was worried how his music was going to survive when he was gone. He made a conscious decision to keep the genre going in Monroe’s honor. He wanted to assure Monroe he could go in peace.
He told him, “Your music is gonna outlast you. It’s gonna outlast me. People will be playing this music 100 years from now. People, they’re going to be talking about you. So, I know I will do my part to keep it alive.”
“The Big Interview with Dan Rather” airs on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT on AXS TV.