"The love of this music got imparted to me through my dad," says legendary bluegrass singer and string player Ricky Skaggs, touching on the inspiration and theme of his new solo album, Songs My Dad Loved. Due for release on Sept. 15 on the Skaggs Family Records label, the 14-time Grammy winner's first totally-solo album calls attention to a mighty strong sense of love and respect.
"After honoring Bill Monroe for all these years — and the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, and groups like that — it's kinda easy to forget old dad at home, where you grew up, and all the years and all the hours that my dad invested in me, musically, personally, and spiritually," says Skaggs.
"My dad allowed me to be a person," he adds. "He let me get in touch with who I was and figure out that God had given me this ability to play music. It was really a free gift, and I could do something with it if I wanted to, or I could just walk away from it. My dad taught me those types of lessons. I'm really thankful for it, and I try to teach my boys and girls the same kinds of things. They all have special gifts, but the person they are and the one they become is more important than the gift. The gift can open doors, but the person that walks through those doors is really what God's most interested in."
Skaggs and his band, Kentucky Thunder, headline Boone Hall's summer concert series conclusion this Sunday. Organizers paired a sizeable, rain-or-shine barbecue festival with an authentic bluegrass/old-time showcase. Kentucky Thunder's lineup includes fiddler Andy Leftwich, lead guitarist Cody Kilby, bassist Mark Fain, singer/guitarist Paul Brewster, and banjo player Jim Mills.
Also on the bill are soulful N.C. act The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Hemingway-based bluegrass ensemble The Southland Boys (featuring Jimmie Stone), and longtime local favorites Homeboy Reunion.
Ricky Skaggs spent his earliest childhood years in the tiny Kentucky towns of Cordell and Blaine both located in Lawrence County, right on the Big Sandy river near the West Virginia border. At age three, Hobert Skaggs began teaching Ricky to play folk and country tunes on the mandolin. Soon thereafter, Ricky started harmonizing with his parents, learning chord changes, and jamming with elderly mountain music masters at local pickin' parties.
Themes of generational respect connection and respect run through much of Skaggs' music, as demonstrated on his previous album, the 12-song Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 & 1947 (released last spring). As he puts it in the liner notes of Songs My Dad Loved, he learned "the honor of old musicians" in the area around Kentucky and the Appalachians. Those elements of honor and respect may be particularly Southern in a way, but Skaggs' fans all over the world easily relate.
"My dad was pretty tolerant around me, 'cause I wasn't always the easiest kid to be around," chuckles Skaggs. "I think he really saw a God-given gift that I had to hear music, and to reproduce what I heard. I think he really felt like it was worth it to pour into me. It's kind of a 'thank-you' in a way, and a way to let my fans and the world know that he was the guy who imparted this music. My mom did, too ... they both sang together in church and at home, and those were among my first musical memories. But this is really a great way to say thanks. He was always a honorable man in the community, and he was always true to his word. Through the tough years, he stayed faithful, and he put his trust in God."
Skaggs assembled the collection at his studio in Hendersonville, Tenn. From the toe-tapping, stranded-love opener "Foggy River" and the heartfelt waltz "What Is Love Without a Home" to such organic instrumental tracks as "Colonel Prentiss" (a traditional tune) and "Pickin' in Caroline" (a Skaggs original), the album displays his impressive technical skills and easy-natural style of picking and singing.
In addition to his usual round-hole and F-hole mandolins and acoustic guitars, Skaggs used a roomful of instruments on the sessions including resonator guitar, mandocello steel string banjo, gut-string fretless banjo, fiddle, piano, bass, baritone guitar, and percussion instruments. Playing multiple tracks and singing all the lead melodies and additional harmonies, Songs My Dad Loved is truly the work of a bona fide one-man band.
It's a little funny, hearing several simultaneous vocal tracks performed by the same man, but Skaggs' warm, mountain-accented singing sounds especially rich on the gospel-styled traditional hymns "Sinner You'd Better Get Ready" and "God Holds the Future in His Hands."
"Besides the Ralph Stanley song 'Little Maggie,' which I cut once before on a session [for Bluegrass Rules], most all of these songs I had to go back and relearn. I had to get on the internet and find the lyrics to I Had But 50 Cents,' which my dad used to sing to us and had us rolling on the floor laughing. These were all songs that were in my house when I was a kid, and it was all pre-bluegrass. I have an old songbook here of maybe 200 songs, all hand-written by my dad and friends of his. Many of them are old songs of the 1930s and '40s — old, early country songs from that time period. Some of them I don't even know the melodies for.
"My hope is that the honor and love will come through," he adds. "You live with it yourself, and try to walk it every day, but you always wonder who's really listening [laughs]. Are they really getting this, and understanding what's in my heart? I hope so."