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Published: Sunday, 2/9/2003

Country's bluegrass king

BY BRIAN DUGGER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Ricky Skaggs and his band, Kentucky Thunder, play tonight at Tiffin's Ritz Theatre. Ricky Skaggs and his band, Kentucky Thunder, play tonight at Tiffin's Ritz Theatre.
MICKEY KRAKOWSKI / AP Enlarge

Maybe it sounds a little sappy. Ricky Skaggs doesn't care. He was born with a passion for bluegrass music, but left it in favor of more mainstream country music. After 15 years, he returned to bluegrass out of love for two of the most important people in his life - his father, Hobert, and his lifelong friend and the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe.

Their deaths changed his life and, in the process, changed bluegrass. He has gone on to be the dominant player in the industry. The eight-time Grammy winner and his band, Kentucky Thunder, will put their talents on display tonight at The Ritz Theatre in Tiffin.

In 1996, Skaggs had been a star in mainstream country music for 15 years. He had pumped out 14 albums, 12 No. 1 singles, and had earned dozens of awards from the industry, including the Country Music Association's Male Vocalist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year.

In that same year, he was also making regular trips to a Nashville nursing home to see the legendary Bill Monroe, who along with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs had founded bluegrass in the mid-1940s. When Skaggs was 6 years old, Monroe called him up on stage during a show at an eastern Kentucky high school and let him play his mandolin.

At the nursing home, Skaggs and Monroe would fool around with the same instrument, and Skaggs would listen to Monroe fret about the future of the bluegrass movement. The young musician made a promise to his old friend that he would always keep his music alive. The last time he saw him, Skaggs kissed the legend on the cheek and told him he loved him. The other great influence in his life, his father, also died in 1996.

“My dad would always say, `You've got to do a bluegrass album,' and I'd always tell him `That's not going to happen on this label [Epic Records].' He'd look at me and say, `You've got to get away from that label then',” Skaggs said with a chuckle during a telephone call from a recording studio in Nashville.

But that's exactly what Skaggs did after the death of his two mentors. He broke away to form his own label - Skaggs Family Records -devoted to keeping bluegrass alive. Each of the five albums he's put out on the label has received a Grammy nomination, and his band has been recognized as the outstanding bluegrass band in four of the last five years.

“After my father's and Monroe's deaths, it seemed like the right time to make the move. It was a big statement at the time, this big country star going back to his roots. I'd been there and done that, but my heart was pulling me back to the traditional thing. I'm proud to say it's been the best thing I've ever done,'' he says.

Once credited by renowned guitarist and producer Chet Atkins as single-handedly saving country music back in the early 1980s, Skaggs now gladly accepts the title of torchbearer for bluegrass music.

His success has coincided with a resurgence in thepopularity of the genre. “O Brother, Where Art Thou'' has been one of the best-selling country roots albums of all time, and The Dixie Chicks and Dolly Parton have brought added attention with bluegrass albums. Besides Skaggs Family Records, Skaggs has also founded Ceili (pronounced “kaylee”) Music, which features artists emphasizing bluegrass and other forms of roots music.

“Bluegrass is a style of music I grew up with in eastern Kentucky. It reminds me of a more quiet time, a more settled time in this country. It's almost a childlike experience for me everytime I play it,'' he says.

He raves about some of the new young artists on his label that are playing Monroe's music. “To listen their interpretation of the music, it's cool. It's fresh and maybe something that hasn't been done before. It's exciting to hear these young kids.''

Next month, Skaggs will release his fifth bluegrass album, “Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder Live at the Charleston Music Hall,'' a project he calls one of his most exciting experiences.

Recorded live at a performance in Charleston, S.C., “It's one of those magical records that will always be special to me.You can never get that live feeling in a studio. That's a much more sterile environment. You almost play outside yourself when you play for people,'' he says.

In Tiffin, he's promising to play some of the new songs off of the album and even some of the old Nashville classics. “I think even the country fans will be entertained,'' he said.

Ricky Skaggs and his band, Kentucky Thunder, play The Ritz Theatre, 30 South Washington St., Tiffin, tonight at 8. Tickets are $31-$48. For more information, call (419) 448-8544.



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