A certain long weekend in June keeps looking better and better. In February, the legendary Ricky Skaggs announced he would play at this year’s Huck Finn Jubilee Bluegrass Music Festival in Ontario, California.
The Huck Finn Jubilee features the best in all kinds of bluegrass music, be it traditional or the newer subgenres that have developed. Who better to tie it all together than Ricky Skaggs?
A Storied Career
Ricky Skaggs has had a career in bluegrass spanning over four decades, and he is still going strong. Born in Kentucky in 1954, he was a bit of a mandolin prodigy, first picking up the instrument when he was about five. A year later, the one and only Bill Monroe, while playing locally, invited Skaggs on stage to play his mandolin. By the tender age of seven, Skaggs was playing with other top names in bluegrass. And by his late teens, Skaggs had played with other bluegrass stalwarts such as Dr. Ralph Stanley.
Within a few years, Skaggs delved into country music, playing with artists such as Emmylou Harris. Skaggs eventually went on to become a solo artist, though he has also formed his own band, Kentucky Thunder, as well as his own record label—Skaggs Family Records.
Never Afraid of Challenging Labels
Skaggs never seems afraid of stretching out of his comfort zone, nor of inviting others into his music. By 2000, he released his fourth bluegrass recording, Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe. The album celebrated the music of Bill Monroe, who had once invited him up on stage decades earlier. The collaborators on the album were a veritable Who’s Who of musical talent, and not just in the bluegrass genre: Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless, and Travis Tritt sang on the recordings, as did Joan Osborne, John Fogerty, and Bruce Hornsby.
Often described as a country musician, Skaggs nonetheless stays close to his bluegrass roots—but labels don’t seem to bother him much. Skaggs’ biography on his official website describes “cross pollination” as a “mainstay” of his career. This is no surprise, considering his deep musicality and experience playing in several different genres. In 2007, he teamed up with Bruce Hornsby; in that same year, he worked with The Whites, his wife’s country music group, on a gospel album in the same year. In 2010, he released Mosaic, an album incorporating country music, beautiful melodies, and lyrics about faith. By 2011, Skaggs brought it all together with the release of Country Hits Bluegrass Style.
The Making of a Legend
What make someone a legend? In music, a lot depends upon individual taste. Beyond circumstances and location, what makes a legend legendary differs little. Musical legends embody creativity and musical virtuosity. They are not afraid to break out of their “assigned’ genre. They live for their music, and continually give back to listeners.
Because of this, Ricky Skaggs is a legend, at least in my book. For “hard numbers” that point to his status as a bluegrass great, consider that Skaggs, in 1982, became a member of the Grand Ole Opry—and he was the youngest to ever be inducted at that time.
In folklore, a legend is a story passed down through time that tells the tale of an extraordinary individual or important event. Nowadays, we speak of living legends. I think of living legends as people who do things that significantly affect the world and its culture. In the realm of bluegrass (and country, and crossover, as well), Skaggs fits the bill.
Need some more proof to back up the claims? These are just a few of Skaggs’ awards and recognitions.
- 14 Grammys
- 8 CMA awards
- 9 ACM awards
- 11 awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association
- Named Artist of the Year in 1983 by Billboard magazine
While fostering the preservation of bluegrass, Skaggs embraces musical innovation. In a recent interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he spoke of how his continual return to his bluegrass roots plays a part in his desire to keep the music going for years to come:
“I’m always trying to teach as much as be a performer. I love telling stories, and I love telling people the history of bluegrass. Our show is a lot about the history of the music and, of course, with the hits I had in the ’80s and ’90s, we try to bring those things in, too.”
Coming Back to Huck Finn
Back in 2009, when the Huck Finn Jubilee was still run by the Tucker family, Skaggs played at the festival. There are some great YouTube videos of him playing there, located then in Victorville. This year will also reunite him with another old musical collaborator, Dr. Ralph Stanley.
I’ve said it plenty of times before, and will say it again: Ricky Skaggs is, in my opinion, one of the bluegrass greats. Look for him—and the many other bluegrass musicians—at the Huck Finn Jubilee this year.
Photo Credit: rickyskaggs.com