In 1997, Ricky Skaggs launched his own label, Skaggs Family Records, to take full control of his career – here, the bluegrass icon talks about recording Hearts Like Ours, and what life’s like now on Music Row.
After 33 years of marriage to the woman he lovingly calls “Miss Sharon,” Ricky Skaggs is feeling secure about their relationship. ‘She is keeping me,’ he laughs. ‘We have the paperwork, it’s all signed, and I don’t have to be thrown out on my keister!’ The couple — he best known as a bluegrass and country music legend, and she as one-third of country-gospel family trio The Whites, and both with decades of experience and multiple Grammy, IBMA, ACM, CMA, and Dove awards between them — now also have an album of duets, Hearts Like Ours, which was released late 2014.
In 1987, the couple won the CMA vocal duo of the year award for ‘Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This’. An album was always on their minds, but their touring schedules never coincided with enough studio time for an entire project. Now that it has finally happened, says Skaggs, not only are they pleased with the results, but in particular, he enjoyed sharing the recording and production duties with his partner, who was by his side from pre-production through the mastering process.
‘We did a song or two together before, and it was usually a Ricky Skaggs production,’ he says. ‘I think I was very wise to make sure that we did this equally, that this was a co-production — not just Ricky’s ideas and Sharon singing, but Ricky and Sharon’s ideas. Many times I’m more concerned about the production, the music, and the arrangements, but Sharon’s whole heart is in the song, what the lyrics are saying, how a certain line or certain words should be expressed to make the listener sit up and listen, that it’s a presentation of the truth. When she finds a song that has an incredible lyric, she’s great about saying, “We don’t have to do it like it was recorded. We can change it a little bit and make it our own.” And she’s right, we certainly can.’
Skaggs took a few different directions on Hearts Like Ours, noting that he didn’t play as much mandolin on the record, and relying mostly on his latest acquisition, “The Pee Wee” – a 1922 Lloyd Loar F5 that formerly belonged to Darrell “Pee Wee” Lambert, mandolinist for the Stanley Brothers’ Clinch Mountain Boys. He remains loyal to C.F. Martin & Co., Bourgeois, and Paul Reed Smith for his acoustic guitars. (Skaggs had an active role in the development of the PRS acoustic line, including Private Stock and SE models, and used some acoustic prototypes on the new album.) He also played a McPherson guitar that renowned Nashville luthier Joe Glaser modified with a StringBender. ‘It has one of the coolest sounds, because it has almost an electric sound, but it’s fatter and has an acoustic sound to it as well,’ he says. His 1957 Fender Telecaster also figures prominently for the first time in quite a while, run through a 40-watt Fender Pro Reverb. ‘It has just enough fuzz and distortion that it sounds great for this style of playing,’ he says. He also used two Fender Vibroluxes.
Calling Skaggs a virtuoso is an understatement. It’s also a title that likely he is much too humble to embrace. Born and raised in Cordell, Kentucky, he began playing mandolin at age five, soon progressing to guitar, banjo, and fiddle. He made his stage debut at age six at a Bill Monroe concert. A year later, he was on the Flatt & Scruggs television show. His professional debut came in 1971, when he and Keith Whitley joined Ralph Stanley’s band. He recorded and performed with J.D. Crowe & the New South, was bandleader for Boone Creek, and ended the decade as a member of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band before stepping out on his own as a country artist. To date, he has released more than 30 albums, charted 12 number one singles, and became the then-youngest member inducted into the Grand Ole Opry.
Hearts Like Ours was released on Skaggs Family Records, the label that he launched in 1997. While doing everything oneself is now commonplace in the music industry, at that time it made Ricky Skaggs something of a pioneer and a renegade, as he took full control, from what he records to when it’s released. Taking over the reins is what allows him to make albums like his 2009 project, Songs My Dad Loved, on which he played all of the instruments; Mosaic, the Christian disc of songs by Gordon Kennedy that he released in 2010; and, of course, Hearts Like Ours. It’s not unusual for Skaggs to push boundaries and do the unexpected: Peter Frampton joined him on a track on Mosaic, Barry Gibb partnered with him for a song on 2012’s Music to My Ears, and Bruce Hornsby has recorded and toured with him.
‘I couldn’t get a deal downtown today,’ he says of Music Row. ‘I don’t know if any of us [his peers from previous decades] could get a record deal with the labels that are there. We’re way too old in their sight, and we’re way too irrelevant because we’re not playing the new country sound. So for us to get a record deal, we would have to play music that we don’t want to play, that doesn’t sound like us, and why would we want to do that? That was one of the main reasons that we wanted to do the label — so that we could do what we wanted, when we wanted to. There’s no way in the world that a label would let me do a record like Mosaic. CBS [for whom Skaggs recorded in the 1980s and early 1990s] would never let me do a gospel record. They just didn’t want me to. We had a lot of push back on things like that. Songs My Dad Loved, all these great songs that my dad loved to hear me play or that I loved to hear him sing — I just went in by myself, with my engineer, and started recording. The duet record is something Sharon and I wanted to do forever. So there is a “jump up and shout” kind of thing to having our own label and our own studio.’
He does his entire recording at Skaggs Place, in Hendersonville, Tennessee, with longtime friends and colleagues Brent King, his engineer, Lee Groitzsch, his studio manager, and songwriter/guitarist/producer Gordon Kennedy. Inside those walls, where creative latitude intertwines with serenity, are images of his heroes, including Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Ray Charles, the Reverend Billy Graham. ‘All of this nostalgia, all of my elders, are there with me,’ he says. ‘All the people that have spoken into my life and been an encouragement and told me, “Hey man, you can do this, it sounds great, keep going.” Their pictures are there, and I still feel their hearts, and their love and respect, even though many of them have gone on.’
‘There’s a freedom that I have with Skaggs Family Records and with my studio,’ he says. ‘It’s just a great place. I have the microphones that I like to use, and I have all my gear that I’ve accumulated over the years in the control room. I am so comfortable there. I know how comfortable I am in my living room, sitting in front of the fireplace, just playing. There’s an ease; I don’t feel like I have to show off for anybody, I don’t feel like I’m onstage and that kind of thing. I love going to my studio because it’s like my living room, it’s our second home. Ry Cooder is in town right now, and we’re rehearsing there for some tour dates coming up in June into November, as well as still working with my bluegrass band, Kentucky Thunder. We just enjoy being over there. There’s peace in that studio, and everybody knows it when they walk in. It’s “Ah, it feels good in here.” Nothing feels pressured. There’s no big red light that comes on when they hit “record.” We’ve taken those out. There’s just a real sense of fun, happiness, and joy.’