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Skaggs Is On The Inside Looking Out : Ricky Skaggs Is Now On The Inside Looking Out

November 20, 1986|CHRIS WILLMAN

It's not just the transitory world of rock 'n' roll where a musician can be a rebel one year and then find his threatening style safely assimilated into the mainstream the next.

Ask Ricky Skaggs, who--in the somewhat more static realm of country music--rapidly went from a position on the outskirts to a seat well within the halls of the Nashville establishment.

In the early '80s, Skaggs was at the vanguard of the "new traditionalist" movement--an informal drive to make country country again, as opposed to the easy-listening pop that had slipped in under its guise.

Though he was a tad controversial in some circles at first, now Skaggs is one of country's biggest stars, and he's paved the way for another generation of up-and-comers with a harder edge--like Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle--to generate the flak for pushing the edge of the country envelope even further.

"Timing was real important," said Skaggs--who headlines the Universal Amphitheatre tonight--in a phone call from the road.

"When I first got started, stations were afraid to give the more traditional sounds of country a chance, because of the 'Urban Cowboy' movement and because the pop crossover people like Alabama and Kenny Rogers and Crystal Gayle and Eddie Rabbitt were having the No. 1 records.

"And when a kid came out from Kentucky playing a '50s-sounding style of country music, boy, it was like a breath of fresh air for lots of folks. But it was a little bit of a scare for industry people.

"I feel like I filled a big void that was out there in country music at that time. Now it's not, because since I came out, people like Dwight, George Strait, Randy Travis, the Whites and the Judds have been able to be recognized. The real traditional artists are the ones who've been walking away with the awards the past few years. Alabama is still selling gold and platinum albums, so there's room in the country music business for everybody, but we've given people another option."

Even when describing the slick and conservative forces that might initially have conspired against him and his ilk, Skaggs is unfailingly polite.

"We took the attitude when we started that we were gonna play this kind of music whether they liked it or not," recalled Skaggs of his scrappier days, "but I wasn't trying to shove it down anybody's throat, 'cause you can't really do that and be successful. I never have made anybody eat crow--except maybe my high school principal, who's eaten a bit or two because he used to tell me to get off this business about trying to be a musician and get a real job."

Skaggs has also been a bit out of the mainstream lyrically as well as musically, for failing to croon the cheatin' and drinkin' anthems that even he admits are the bread and butter of his industry.

"A lot of people tried to criticize me for not doing that (type of material), saying that that's the real heart and soul of country music," said Skaggs. "But we haven't had any problems being accepted for just doing good love songs. I felt like my chances would be better doing something that nobody else was doing--and that was really doing good, clean, straight songs and just love songs."

In addition to the romantic interludes, the new album, "Love Is Gonna Get Ya," includes two straight-out gospel numbers--one of which, the Christmas-centered single "New Star Shining," is a duet with pop singer James Taylor.

This follows another intriguing recorded duet: last year's coupling with Elvis Costello on a live rendition of an early Skaggs number, "Don't Get Above Your Raising." Though Costello has been known for his country forays in recent years, Skaggs says he first knew the rocker "from what he did with the punk-rock movement, getting that new-wave kind of thing happening over in London."

Ricky Skaggs, new-wave aficionado? That might seem unlikely from his music, which is anything but hard-edged, but the singer insists that his influences really do play a part in his finished product.

"I think that's kind of what set me apart from a lot of the other ones--my boundaries of music," he said. "I grew up listening to Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe and George Jones, but also to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five and so on.

"It was bound to come out country--obviously that's where my love is, and I was raised up in eastern Kentucky listening to bluegrass and old-time mountain music--but being a kid of the '50s and '60s I wanted to play music of the day, too."

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