Ricky Skaggs: Music is a cleansing; it's life

Ricky Skaggs is not old -- he'll turn 59 in July -- but his actual chronological years belie the elder statesman status he's achieved in country, bluegrass, gospel and neo-traditional music. Rare talent, a bevy of stories, an enthusiastic attitude and a passion for performing have a lot to do with it, but it also has a little to do with the fact that of his 58 years, 53 have been spent playing music.

Given his first mandolin at the age of five, by six he sang onstage with Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe, and the next year appeared on the Opry, as well as alongside Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on their Martha White variety show. In keeping with this trend, before long he and friend Keith Whitley would be invited to join the band of bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley, and by young adulthood, Skaggs would be already recognized as a master in both bluegrass and mainstream country music, having first performed as a member of Emmylou Harris' Hot Band and later as a solo artist. Today, he has countless Grammy and Country Music Association Awards to his name -- many more no doubt yet to come -- and has established his own label, Skaggs Family Records.

As testament to his flexibility as an artist, Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder are set to take the stage at the Dakota Jazz Club tonight (it appears his Friday night performance in Cannon Falls may be sold out). The band will undoubtedly treat us both to tunes off their upbeat September 2012 album, Music to My Ears, as well as some older songs made famous by Ricky Skaggs and by others. We caught up with Skaggs by phone -- we in wintry Minnesota, he in springtime Tennessee -- and chatted about his record, the Father of Bluegrass, and the, uh... curative properties of ham?

See also:
Ten essential Bill Monroe facts on the 101st birthday of the father of bluegrass

Gimme Noise: Can you tell us about your new album, Music to My Ears? How did you come up with the title?

Ricky Skaggs: I get a lot of songs sent to me... the office gets flooded with songs and CDs. I have a Doctorate of Arts degree from Berklee College in Boston, so I go up there pretty frequently. I got a CD from a guy who's a professor up at Berklee in the songwriting department, and he and a couple gals from Nashville had written this song, ["Music to My Ears"]. I really, really loved it, and thought it really said something and was something that I really wanted to record some day. But at the time, I just didn't have a project to put it on. It's not a real heavy gospel song; it certainly has a gospel message, but it's not just all about the gospel necessarily. It's about the power of music and what music does, and what music is. So when I recorded a gospel record called Mosaic, it just didn't seem to fit on that so I dragged it into a folder and kept it on my computer, knowing that someday I was going to record it. When I was finding material for the new record I dragged that one out along with some others, [and] had about fifteen choices of things I wanted to record. So we worked this one up, and it just felt really good in the studio when we recorded it. We were needing a title for the record; I had a list of songs we had recorded, and I started looking down the titles. When my eyes fell on "Music to My Ears," I thought, you know, that is the title of the record, because this music that I play is such music to my heart, and to my ears.

But you know, I love all kinds of music. It's not just bluegrass or country or gospel. So I think when you're a musician and an artist, music is a cleansing. It's life. And it's a way of life for me. I've gotta have it every day. It's not like a drug or medicine... [though] maybe it is good medicine. It certainly has always been a very, very big part of my life, and now for the last 40 years it's been a vocation, it's been what I make my living from, and I've been playing it since I was five years old -- and I'm 58 -- so 53 years to be piddling around music is a long, long time. That's half a lifetime.

Your music seems so often informed by your faith, and incorporates religious themes, but it's also upbeat and fun. How do you reconcile sometimes heavy topics with levity, and make them accessible and joyful?

All through the Scriptures, God is solemn, there's no doubt about it. He is serious about what He's serious about, but He's not some mean old person, or mean-spirited person. There's scripture about God laughing. There are scriptures about Jesus singing... I've come to have such joy in my faith, and peace in my heart, that I feel like a lot of the music that we do really reflects the joyful side of God, the playful side of God, and the loving side of God that loves to be around His kids, just like I love being around my kids, as a father. And I think once you know God as a father, it really does take on a whole new meaning. It makes you feel so much more connected, and you know, there's a serious side to fathers, too, but there's security in that, in knowing the seriousness of God as well.

I just have a different perspective of God, and have such a love for Jesus in my heart that it just kind of comes out in everything that I sing and play, even though all the songs are not heavy lyrics, in gospel. I can sing what I consider a secular song, or a marketplace song, something that really doesn't have lyrics in it about God or about the Gospel, but I think God is family. He loves family, and He loves fun, and He loves people. So I think when we sing songs of people, person-to-person, I think God's right in the middle of that.

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