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Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 12:32 pm

Ricky Skaggs at the Sheldon

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“I still love playing,” quips country/bluegrass great Ricky Skaggs. Skaggs plays Feb. 22 at the Sheldon Concert Hall.

I usually only write about Springfield-area shows, but when I got the chance to interview Ricky Skaggs for his upcoming performance at the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis on Feb. 22, I changed my tune. Originally I thought Ricky’s publicist came from Springfield and I could work that local angle, but when I discovered he wasn’t, it was too late. Darn it, I was now stuck talking to one of the modern greats in bluegrass and country music.

First, a little history on Mr. Skaggs just to let you know who we’re dealing with here. Ricky got his first mandolin from his dad at age 5 and soon earned a reputation for holding his own among the hometown pickers of Martha, Ky. When the legendary Bill Monroe came to perform a concert, the locals demanded “Little Ricky Skaggs,” at the ripe old age of seven, play a song with the legendary Monroe, already renowned the world over as the father of bluegrass music. Monroe graciously adjusted his mandolin strap and placed the instrument in the hands of young Ricky. The rest, as the say, was history. Among his many accomplishments, Skaggs went on to become the youngest member of the Grand Ole Opry and a Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year, while remaining a major force in traditional country and bluegrass music throughout his 50-year career.

In 1997, he formed his own record label and studio, allowing for artistic freedom from industry types, and began a run of Grammy nominated and award winning albums that continues with his latest release Music to my Ears. The recording, co-produced with longtime cohort and famed songwriter/producer Gordon Kennedy, features Barry Gibb (of the Bee Gees) on a co-write and vocal, song tributes to Doc Watson and Bill Monroe, plus blazing instrumentals and heartfelt songs.

“I still love playing. Every time I walk by and see my mandolin I want to play it,” Skaggs says in explaining his longevity. “God must like me a lot to give me a life like this. My old legs don’t move as fast as they did when I was 28, but I still love playing. I hope I can always do this.”

The only time I saw Ricky play was during a Nashville show at the Ryman Auditorium honoring Bill Monroe. While Skaggs hosted, out came Monroe, on in years and barely able to walk, but man, could he still play and sing. Ricky stayed close friends with the music pioneer until his passing in 1996.

“I went to see him on a Thursday in his assisted living home and played some song on the mandolin for him. Of course I played it wrong and he showed me how to do it right. He’d had a stroke and I couldn’t understand all he was saying, but he knew,” Skaggs reminisced. “After that visit I sat in my car and bawled my eyes out. The nurse said he talked of wanting to go home – home to heaven, not Goodlettsville. He passed on that coming Monday. I feel blessed to have had a lifetime relationship with the man.”

Covering the entire history of such a prominent figure in popular music in an article this length is difficult, so I went to the heart of the matter and asked Ricky his thoughts on the power of music.

“Yeah and amen. Music to me is God’s language. The Creator touches us through music and I’m His vessel that He uses to speak through,” he explained. “I’ve been given a gift to bring music to people and I don’t take it lightly. It’s a tremendous thing to have Him work through me.”

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com.

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