Ricky Skaggs brings Kentucky bluegrass to Mondavi Center

By From page A11 | September 21, 2011

Ricky Skaggs' Sept. 30 concert at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts will be an all-bluegrass show, wrapping up with standards like "Kentucky Waltz," "Highway 40 Blues" and "Uncle Pen." Courtesy photo

Ricky Skaggs' Sept. 30 concert at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts will be an all-bluegrass show, wrapping up with standards like "Kentucky Waltz," "Highway 40 Blues" and "Uncle Pen." Courtesy photo


Who: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder

When: 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30

Where: Jackson Hall at the Mondavi Center

Tickets: $35-$58 general, $17.50-$29 students; www.mondaviarts.org or (530) 754-2787

Musician Ricky Skaggs — who visits the Mondavi Center on Friday, Sept. 30, with his band Kentucky Thunder — is steeped in the traditions of bluegrass music.

And he’s well aware that this month marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the man who is widely credited with having shaped bluegrass: Bill Monroe, born Sept. 13, 1911, in Rosine, Ky.

Skaggs — who was also born in Kentucky, but in 1954 — briefly shared the stage with Monroe when Skaggs was a lad of 6.

“I had been playing for not quite a year, in church with my mom and dad,” he recalls. When Monroe came to town, the Skaggs family went to hear him, taking little Ricky along.

At the concert, some of the neighbors who had heard young Ricky began asking from the audience, “Let little Ricky get up on stage and sing.” As Skaggs recalled, “Bill Monroe didn’t put much attention to it. But they kept asking, and after a while he was ready to get it over with.

“So he called me up there, and I come walking over,” Skaggs continued. “That stage was maybe four feet off the floor, so he bends over and grabs me by the arm and pulls me up on stage. And he asked me what I played.

“I said I played mandolin. And he smiled, and took his big F-5 mandolin, and put the strap so it would fit me, and hung it on my shoulder.

“I had been used to playing a very small mandolin that my dad bought for five bucks at a pawnshop. And here I was with the greatest mandolin there was — it was like holding the sword Excalibur. I stood there and told the band that I knew an Osborne Brothers song called ‘Ruby.’ And we played it.

“It was my first real stage appearance, and it was with the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe.”

Skaggs still marvels at the great man’s generosity.

“Had he been an evil kind of person, he could have really hurt my heart,” Skaggs said. “You know some musicians have very big feelings. But he was so kind and gentle, he pat me on the back. That’s why I loved him so, and have always honored his music.”

Skaggs and Monroe crossed paths again, when Skaggs was a teenager playing in Ralph Stanley’s band, the Clinch Mountain Boys. And Skaggs got to know Monroe as an adult during the 1980s, when Skaggs started appearing on the Grand Ole Opry, and making records.

The two men would see each other at bluegrass festivals, and sometimes perform a song together, until age cut into Monroe’s schedule. Monroe died in 1996 at age 84.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Skaggs had become a mainstream Nashville star, though bluegrass was always a component of his success. But in 1997, Skaggs formed his own label — Skaggs Family Records — and issued an album called “Bluegrass Rules!” It was the first in a series of Grammy-winning albums in a traditional vein for Skaggs.

Skaggs Family Records also released four albums by the bluegrass group Cherryholmes, which played at Mondavi in 2007. That group, which disbanded earlier this year, was led by Jere Cherryholmes, whose long, majestic white beard made him instantly identifiable.

Skaggs’ hair has gone largely white at this point, but the “big beard” is a look that Skaggs has never attempted.

“I grew a mustache one time, when my little girl Molly was about 3 years old. I came home after a tour one night, and Molly had her sleeping gown on, my wife had given her a bath.”

The little girl was rather unhappy with the whiskers on daddy’s face.

“So I just shaved it off,” Skaggs said. In the process, he created a bit of consternation at CBS Records (his label at the time), because “they had just taken all these promotional pictures that had me with a mustache,” Skaggs recalled. “I didn’t even think about that.”

In the last year or two, Skaggs has started mixing traditional bluegrass concerts with other concerts featuring Skaggs doing some of his Nashville hits with a semi-electric band.

“Fans haven’t heard me do that since 1997, when we started Skaggs Family Records,” Skaggs said. “And there are some shows where we play the first 45 minutes doing bluegrass, and the country hits from the 1980s and 1990s (with electric instruments) on the second half. That’s fun to do.”

The Sept. 30 appearance at Mondavi will be an all-bluegrass show, wrapping up with standards like “Kentucky Waltz,” “Highway 40 Blues” and “Uncle Pen.”

“The very next day, we’ll be playing at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco,” Skaggs noted.

Skaggs also just released the album “Skaggs Family Christmas, Volume II.”

“It’s a CD of holiday music, and as a bonus, it comes with a two-hour DVD of a live show we did in Nashville about two years ago, shot in high def,” he said.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or (530) 747-8055.

Jeff Hudson

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