Splendor in the Grass

Bluegrass music's prodigal son returns


Ricky Skaggs plays bluegrass like there is an Olympic medal waiting at the end of each song. Some pickers may be hipper than Skaggs, others more progressive but none can match his commitment to the virtue of velocity. The multi-instrumentalist and mandolin specialist's peerless technique and tenor singing voice have caused jaws to drop since his childhood, but recently Skaggs added a new dimension to his arsenal. He is on a holy mission to save bluegrass music.

The story of Skaggs' rise to bluegrass stardom, his fall from grace and ultimate redemption is full of so many extraordinary twists of fate and changes of heart, it would sound like a hackneyed screenplay if not true. He was born in a town that doesn't even appear on most maps, to a family of working-class porch musicians. Skaggs was given his first child-sized mandolin at age 5 and within months could sing while playing chords or soloing. At 6, he had so amazed the locals that when Bill Monroe, inventor and patron saint of bluegrass, played in Skaggs' hometown in 1960, his audience yelled for "little Ricky" to be let up on stage.

Monroe, in one of the most auspicious meetings in American music, lifted wee Skaggs onto the stage and handed him Monroe's own hallowed mandolin with the shoulder strap adjusted accordingly. Skaggs yipped out a brief version of the contemporary bluegrass hit "Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?" The crowd went wild and his fate was sealed. In interviews with various bluegrass magazines, Skaggs has even compared the spectacle to the Old Testament coronation of David by the elder prophet Samuel.

At age 7, Skaggs performed on bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs' television show. At 15, he joined the masterful Stanley Brothers band. By 25, he had played with almost every major American bluegrass outfit, provided the string and vocal duet power for several of Emmylou Harris' landmark early albums--in particular the 1980 mountain-music masterpiece Roses in the Snow--and was in line for his own major label recording career. The only catch: Skaggs' Epic Records contract was for Nashville-based country music, not bluegrass.

"We [have come] out of the wilderness of country music into the promise land of bluegrass," Skaggs proclaims on the new album Live at the Charleston Music Hall with his modern-day bluegrass band, not hiding his disdain for the experiences he had among mainstream country artists. Donning a Robert Goulet moustache and some stellar checkered sport coats, the mandolin guru garnered 12 number one singles, four Grammy Awards and a membership into the Grand Ole Opry over a nine-album streak in the 1980s. His style was pop-based enough to get airplay, but always permeated by elements of bluegrass--even if only a subtle mandolin or banjo line in the background of a song. Skaggs' role as leader of the "back to basics" country movement was unquestioned, but the popularity of the movement itself was shortly overthrown by rock-influenced artists like Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Tim McGraw. With sales falling, Skaggs didn't "prostitute" his style, and was brusquely dumped by Epic Records in 1992. He did not produce another record for three years.

The story of Skaggs' subsequent return to bluegrass is almost as remarkable as his entry. According to a testimonial he wrote for the inspirational magazine Guideposts, Skaggs was leaving the stage at Bill Monroe's funeral in 1996 when he happened to glance at the clock. It read 11:11 a.m., a palindrome that struck a chord with him. Skaggs went home, found the Bible passage Isaiah 11:11 ("On that day the Lord will exert his power a second time ... ") and decided that a revival of pure, lighting-fast bluegrass was to be his crusade.

Within a year Skaggs spawned his own independent label, Skaggs Family Records, produced the appropriately named album Bluegrass Rules! and cemented himself on the forefront of bluegrass evangelism. Consider him a pump-primer for the Oh Brother Where Art Thou? revival. And consider his recent albums, which combine warp-speed jams with mournful gospel and regressive titles like Ancient Tones and History of the Future, proof that separation of church and twang would be a very bad thing.

Skaggs still mirrors his parents' fundamentalist faith, but he plays the mandolin like the fires of hell are roasting his buns. He and his band Thunder Mountain play so fast on "How Mountain Girls Can Love" and "Pig in a Pen" on Live at the Charleston Music Hall that the audience can hardly clap fast enough to keep up.

Likewise, awards associations can barely produce prizes quickly enough to meet Skaggs' demand; he has nabbed five Grammys and eight International Bluegrass Music Association. This success comes at the well-publicized chagrin of his former major label record execs, who have claimed that the awards portray judges that are not on top of current musical trends--but don't tell that to Skaggs. His righteous strings are hotter than ever, and this show promises to be the most furious event this side of Slayer.

Ricky Skaggs, July 22, 8 p.m., $33, Egyptian Theatre. Tickets at Record Exchange, Egyptian Theatre or 387-1273.