Ricky Skaggs picked up his first mandolin in 1959 at the age of 5, and by the time he was 7 he had already made his Grand Ole Opry debut. He’s had 12 number one hits and garnered 14 Grammys. Now recognized as a legend in the genre, he hasn’t been one to rest on his laurels — in recent years, with his band Kentucky Thunder, he’s taking bluegrass and roots music in modern and even experimental directions.
Ricky’s new memoir “Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music,” shares stories from the half-century he’s logged in Nashville and on the road, and it also includes the “Ten Commandments of Bluegrass” cribbed from his own musical mentor Bill Monroe – so we know he’s not shy about sharing some advice.
Brendan Francis Newnam: And here to answer your questions this week is country and bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs. And Ricky, welcome.
Ricky Skaggs: Great to be with you guys today. Thanks so much for having me.
Rico Gagliano: Thanks for coming.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So Ricky, when you were 6 years old, bluegrass legend Bill Monroe pulled you on stage and gave you his mandolin, and you’ve been playing almost since that time, constantly. Do you remember what song you played when he pulled you on stage?
Ricky Skaggs: I do. It was “Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man?” Something a 6-year-old should really be singing about. It was either that one or the “Pinball Machine” song, I only knew two. And my mom had told me before I went on the stage, “Don’t you sing that pinball song when you get up there.”
Rico Gagliano: Why? Was that considered a horrible habit for a kid back then?
Ricky Skaggs: Yeah, it could have been.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Do you ever play that tune with the Kentucky Travelers? The Ruby song?
Ricky Skaggs: I don’t because it’s so high now. I mean when I was singing it, it sounded like a dog whistle it was so high. So dogs from four counties would come and howl.
Rico Gagliano: You can’t hit those notes anymore, you think?
Ricky Skaggs: No, I can’t hit those notes anymore. Actually if you wanna go on YouTube, type in “Ricky Skaggs and Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs,” and you will find a 7-year-old-with-a-vacation-Bible-school-haircut Ricky Skaggs as a special guest on “The Flatt & Scruggs” show, wearing his white shirt and his little string tie, singing “Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man?”
Rico Gagliano: Do you ever go back and look at those things?
Ricky Skaggs: I do. When we did the show with Flatt and Scruggs, they sent us a card in the mail and said, “Hey this is when it’s gonna air here in Nashville.” So mom got the supper dishes all put away and we sat down to watch the show, it came on, and I freaked out! And I ran into my bedroom and got under my bed — I couldn’t watch it! I was so shy.
I looked for it for years thinking that someone might of had a copy of it somewhere, and it was not to be found. And then some guy that used to work at WSM-TV passed away, and he had taken the tapes home from WSM and recorded them.
Rico Gagliano: So now you can watch yourself. Now you can handle it.
Ricky Skaggs: Now I can stand to watch myself. Yes sir.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well your time on the road, I think it qualifies you to help our listeners with their etiquette questions. So are you ready to field some of them?
Ricky Skaggs: Oh yea, I’m Eddie Etiquette right here. I’m Mister Etiquette.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Eddie Etiquette, that’s almost as good as Ricky Skaggs for a stage name.
Ricky Skaggs: I know it, yeah. I thought about that.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well let’s try it.
On avoiding excessive encores
Brendan Francis Newnam: So our first question comes from Liz in Santa Monica, California, and Liz writes: “What’s the best way for a crowd to handle an encore? I’ve been in some shows where the show was fantastic so we clapped and cheered for one encore, then a second, and then usually the third time I start to feel like we’re being greedy by asking for more and putting the performer on the spot. What are your thoughts?”
Ricky Skaggs: Well, we always love giving an encore, but I think it’s always good too to leave the crowd wanting to see you again when you come back. I think you can wear your welcome out if you just keep doing encores. There is bands that will absolutely not do an encore, they just won’t do it. I’ve never been able to do that.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So you don’t feel it’s putting the performer in an uncomfortable spot, you’re like “I’m happy to do one or…”
Ricky Skaggs: One or two.If it’s really, really high octane and they’re just throwing babies in the air then you can do a third encore or something like that.
Rico Gagliano: You better do a third one or there will be some problems! You’ll be in the news: “Didn’t save the babies.”
Ricky Skaggs: That’s right.
Should a musician accept any audience request?
Rico Gagliano: All right, here’s one from Stephanie from Lexington, Kentucky, and Stephanie writes: “I’m also a musician and I’m wondering how do you decline a request during a show when an audience member wants you to play a song that you either don’t know or don’t want to play?”
Ricky Skaggs: Yeah. Sometimes people will come up and ask me to do a song that someone else had a hit on, and it’s like “Sorry, I don’t do that. I don’t know that song — that’s Randy Travis’s song.”
My roots were in bluegrass. I started playing bluegrass early in my life and been in a lot of bluegrass bands before I went to work with Emmylou Harris, which that was really my first band to play country music with — commercial songs, country music. But nowadays, since 1997, I came back to my roots. And we get a lot of requests to do “Honey Open That Door,” “Heartbroke,” some of these songs that I had number-one country hits on, that it’s kind of hard to do in a bluegrass configuration.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, well that’s a good practical reason for not doing something. “We really don’t have the instruments to make that happen.”
Ricky Skaggs: Yeah: “Sorry, we’ve got eight people on stage, but we don’t have the instruments to make this happen.” So they say, “Yeah, right!”
Rico Gagliano: Do you ever try out a bluegrass version of one of your old songs? That sounds like it could be fun. I’ve seen Dolly Parton do a version of “Stairway to Heaven.”
Ricky Skaggs: Me and Bruce Hornsby, my knuckle-head friend that I love so much, he and I we did a bluegrass version of Rick James’ “Superfreak” and it’s a sight to behold. So the elder folks don’t really know who Rick James was — “that old bluegrass singing Rick James” — but when the young kids hear [sings "superfreak" riff]: “Naaa, na na na, na-na. Na-na. Naaa, na na na, na-na….”
Rico Galiano: I’m loving it right now.
Ricky Skaggs: …So it’s pretty cool.
Rico Gagliano: There you go Stephanie. So I guess the answer is if somebody requests a song that you don’t want to play, just play “Superfreak” in bluegrass style.
Ricky Skaggs: That’s it. Just bluegrass it out and they’ll be happy.
Reclaiming ‘redneck’ and combating Yankee prejudice
Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, so we have another question. This one comes from Bo, who grew up in Virginia: “How should one deal with people being condescending towards Southerners?” Apparently Bo encountered this attitude often.
Ricky Skaggs: Man, redneck is cool. “Duck Dynasty” has made redneck cool again.
It’s okay to be redneck, especially if you know that you’re redneck. It’s when you don’t know that you’re redneck is when you’re dangerous to society.But if you really know it, and you don’t mind showing it, then it’s okay to be redneck.
Rico Gagliano: So if somebody is being condescending to you, you kind of say “Hey, you’re the uncool one?” Like, “I’m the coolest thing going right now.”
Ricky Skaggs: Yeah. You just smile and say “Well, you all eat sushi – we catch fish with that stuff.”
Brendan Francis Newnam: There you go. I think that captures it. Although, Ricky, you wear your hairstyle long in the back, so we don’t know what color your neck is, actually.
Ricky Skaggs: Well if you raised it up… There’s a song called “You Can’t Grow That Black Hair Long Enough To Cover That Red Neck.”
Rico Gagliano: Of course there is.
Brendan Francis Newnam: We’ll take your word on it.
Rico Gagliano: Ricky Skaggs, thanks so much for telling our audience how to behave.
Ricky Skaggs: Oh thank you, it was great to be with you guys today.