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The tie that binds

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Ricky Skaggs honors dad with latest songs

By Greg Summers

The late Hobert Skaggs always had a hidden reason behind everything he did.

The mandolin that 5-year-old Ricky Skaggs found in his bed one Saturday morning some 50 years ago, and the G, C and D chords that Hobert taught his son weren’t just learning tools and a musical instrument.

It was Hobert’s connection to his Eastern Kentucky childhood that was lost when his brother was killed in World War II.

“He and my uncle had a little brothers' duet when they were about 15 or 16 years old and played and sang together locally,” Ricky Skaggs said. “Dad played guitar and sang lead while my uncle played mandolin and sang tenor.”

Ricky Skaggs said in a recent National Public Radio interview that he believes his dad had made an inner vow that if he ever had a son who showed any kind of interest in music, he would buy him a mandolin and let him learn to sing high tenor. 

Singing high tenor and playing a mandolin is something that Ricky Skaggs, a 14-time Grammy winner and a former Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year, does better than anyone.

Along with his band Kentucky Thunder, Ricky Skaggs will perform on the Bradley Auditorium stage at the University of South Carolina at Lancaster on Saturday as part of the See Lancaster Performing Arts Series.

This is one show Skaggs is especially looking forward to.

It’s a way for him to connect to his dad, through his highly acclaimed recent solo release, “Songs My Dad Loved.” Those songs are a tribute to Skaggs’ construction welder father, who instilled a love of bluegrass in his young son.

“In his heart, he was a musician,” Skaggs said. “He didn’t make his living as a musician ever, but as a young man, he probably picked up $25 playing here or there. Dad was good enough to sing with Bill Monroe and groups with a lead singer and guitar player, but I think he knew in his heart to do something like that, he’d have to be gone a lot. My dad was a real family man who would much rather take care of his family and play on the side when he could.”

That’s why Skaggs’ considers “Songs My Dad Loved” so meaningful. It’s a true solo record in every sense with the talented musician playing every instrument and singing every note. From fiddle and banjo tunes to duets and gospel songs, Skaggs said he tried to build every song around the sound of his dad’s voice. Songs like “City That Lies Foursquare” and “Green Pastures in the Sky” were his dad’s favorites.

“I think he would really like it,” Skaggs said. “These are songs that he and I definitely sang or listened to and loved. It’s some of my earliest memories of music.”

A child prodigy

Skaggs has enjoyed a successful music career for more than 38 years. In 1961 – two years after his dad gave him that mandolin – 7-year-old Ricky Skaggs was making television appearances alongside Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. By the time Skaggs reached his teens, he and a friend, the late country singer Keith Whitley, were invited to join Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys.

Skaggs soon gained a reputation for pushing creativity to the ragged edge. In 1975, Skaggs joined J.D. Crowe and the New South, an all-star line-up by any standard.

The band included Skaggs on mandolin, Crowe on banjo, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Tony Rice on guitar and Bobby Slone on acoustic bass.

Together, they produced a landmark bluegrass album, affectionately known by its catalog number, Rounder 0044.

Music critics still hail Rounder 0044 as a recording that forever changed the scope and direction of bluegrass. With its progressive sound, tight vocals and rhythmic, flexible instrumentation, Rounder 0044 has become so influential that it is one of the benchmarks that all bluegrass recordings are measured.

“Sometimes you hesitate to use words like ground-breaking and landmark,” said local music historian Pete Arnold, former dean at USCL. “But there is one thing you can say. The second-generation Skaggs is part of is an incredibly talented and creative group that built on what the masters – Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs – taught them.”

In the late 1970s, Skaggs turned to country music, first as a member of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and then as an individual recording artist.

By 1981, Skaggs’ was a Nashville mainstay. Skaggs’ dedication and refusal to shy away from traditional country music he was raised on was turning heads along Music Row, including those of his fellow musicians.

Renowned guitarist and producer, the late Chet Atkins, went so far as to credit Skaggs with “single-handedly” saving country music with his “hot-picking” and traditional-sounding tunes.

Skaggs’ popularity soared, along with his awards, including a highly coveted Entertainer of the Year Award in 1985.

Since then, Skaggs has continued to record and perform more than 200 dates a year across the United States, with his musical influence being felt on many levels.

“With his down-to-earth personality, picking, stage performances, recordings and mentoring, Ricky Skaggs has truly cemented himself as a music legends,” Arnold said.

A man of faith 

A born-again Christian, Skaggs doesn’t shy away from sharing his faith.

With so many performance dates, Skaggs said his family and band find much of their Christian fellowship outside a typical church setting. Skaggs and his wife, Sharon White, now married for 27 years, attend services near their Hendersonville, Tenn., home when their schedules permit.

Sharon performs at the Grand Ole Opry most weekends with her family, The Whites, and Skaggs is constantly on the road. But if he can make it home in time for a late-morning Sunday service, that’s what he does. 

Skaggs chooses to look at it as how God has chosen to use him and his God-given gifts.

“It’s part of the call that’s on my life,” Skaggs said. “You can do both. The church is us, it ain’t a building. Jesus said ‘In my father’s house, there are many mansions’ and I think those mansions are us. He’s building his church and we are temples not made with hands. We know where the Lord resides."

However, Skaggs never encourages others do likewise.

“I have a strong relationship with the Lord and with my friends,” he said. “We usually attend prayer meetings through the week and have a normal Bible study at the house on Monday that gives us a lot of fellowship outside the church building.

“It’s not conventional or traditional,” Skaggs said. “Most people really feel an urgency to be in their home church every Sunday. Come hell or high water, they are going to be there, but some of that can be out of a religious spirit that makes you feel better just because you showed up.

“To me, if you’re not there out of a pure heart for the right reasons, it doesn’t mean much. God would rather have you there one time a month with a pure heart than four times trying to show off for your neighbors,” he said. “It’s not what people think anyway, it’s our relationship with the Lord that matters.”      

A special show

Skaggs performed in front of a sold-out USCL crowd in 2007. He’s been looking forward to returning here for a number of reasons, including one very special one. Saturday’s concert  is a chance for Skaggs to connect with two of his four children, Luke and Molly Kate, who live nearby.

They are members of the instrumental group, Songs of Water, that will open the show. Songs of Water is based at Morningstar Ministries and University in Fort Mill, the former PTL site.

“They minister in a worship band and in the teaching department there at the university,” Skaggs said. “I know Songs of Water has a pretty good following around the Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston Salem areas. I’m pretty excited about seeing them and getting to hear them play.”

Did you know?

While Ricky Skaggs is known as a gifted vocalist and mandolin player, he was voted as one of the top 100 guitarists of the 20th century.

Known as the “Ambassador of Bluegrass,” by his peers, Skaggs has won multiple gospel music and country music awards, including CMA Entertainer of the Year in 1985. A member of the Grand Ole Opry, Skaggs was selected in 2003 by CMT as one of the 40 greatest men in country music. Married to Sharon White, he has four children – Andrew, Mandy, Molly Kate and Luke.

No.1 hits by Ricky Skaggs

• 1982 – “Crying My Heart Out Over You”

• 1982 – “Heartbroke”

• 1982 – “I Don’t Care”

• 1983 – “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown”

• 1983 – “Highway 40 Blues”

• 1983 – “I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could”

• 1984 – “Honey (Open That Door)”

• 1984 – “Uncle Pen”

• 1985 – “Country Boy”

• 1986 –  “Cajun Moon”

• 1989 –  “Lovin’ Only Me”

Want to go

WHO: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder with Songs of Water

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 14

WHERE: University of South Carolina at Lancaster’s Bundy Auditorium

HOW MUCH: About 20 tickets ($65 each) remain and are available at the See Lancaster office inside the Springs House, 201 W. Gay St. Tickets can also be purchased online at plittle@lancastercity.sc.com.

INFORMATION: (803) 286-1145 or (803) 285-6207 (fax)