Stories of artistic courage and integrity in the big leagues of music are about as rare as Mike Tyson-friendly columns in the sports pages.
For years, selling out, rather than sticking to a milieu, has been the way to survive among the corporate sharks. And so, let us bless Ricky Skaggs, who plays the Galaxy Concert Theatre on Thursday. Let us shower him with praise and approbation, for this soft-spoken country gentleman has taken a heroic stand for the music he believes in--belatedly perhaps, but bravely nonetheless.
The scenario is a Hollywood cliche: The gifted protege makes a promise to his mentor moments before the Grand Master expires. Duly moved and resolute, the student sets out to do the teacher proud. In this story, the disciple is Skaggs and the preceptor is Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, who died in September.
"I made a commitment to Mr. Monroe on his deathbed," Skaggs said in a recent phone interview from the road. "He was very worried and concerned about what would happen to the music. I told him on his deathbed that I was absolutely going to do everything in my power to keep bluegrass music alive. I told him not to worry about it, that his music is gonna stay intact; people are gonna play it, and I'm gonna do my part to keep it going as long as I live. And I believe he knew I was a man of my word."
Born in rural eastern Kentucky, Skaggs was singing in church at age 3 and picking a mandolin at 5, emulating the bluegrass and gospel music he heard in his parents' home. A gifted singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Skaggs appeared onstage before he reached his teens as a guest of the iconic Monroe.
His first full-time gig came as a member of bluegrass heavies the Clinch Mountain Boys. After stints with the Country Gentleman and Boone Creek, Skaggs netted his first mainstream job in Emmylou Harris' Hot Band. He also released three critically acclaimed solo albums for the independent Sugar Hill Records before hitting it big, signing with Epic in 1981.
Skaggs went on to become one of the most successful country artists of the '80s, with songs such as "Crying My Heart Out Over You," "I Don't Care," "Heartbroke," "Don't Cheat in Our Hometown," "Cajun Moon" and "Loving Only Me" topping the charts. The sound, commercial country, bespoke a bluegrass background, with Skaggs' high, lonesome vocals and hot string picking betraying his roots in even the most maudlin material. He racked up Grammy, Country Music Assn and listeners' poll awards like so many knickknacks on a mantel.
But the '90s brought the so-called "new country" movement, and with it hordes of pretty-boy, big-hat performers who edged out the established country stars for airplay. Skaggs signed a new deal with Atlantic Records and in 1995 released "Solid Ground," but its sales didn't match those of previous albums.
"Billboard radio doesn't really seem to have a place for me right now," Skaggs said. "I'm soon to be 43 years old, and it's really a youth-driven market. I'm not what the record labels are trying to push nowadays. Very few have stuck to their guns like George Jones and Merle Haggard and Johnny Paycheck and Willie and Waylon."
From now on, inspired by Monroe, Skaggs says he will take a two-pronged approach to his career. Next month, "Life's a Journey," a recording that recalls his early days in neo-traditionalism, will be out on the Atlantic label. And, even better for longtime fans, Skaggs' renewal contract will allow him to record and release straight bluegrass albums on his own label while doing country albums for Atlantic.
With "Bluegrass Rules," due in October on Skaggs Family Records, Skaggs says he's not only making good on his promise to Monroe but also fulfilling his true destiny as a musician.
"This is something I'm really excited about," he said. "This will be the first bluegrass album I've done in 20 years--straight bluegrass, in-your-face, with an attitude! I'm just so fired up about this. . . . Now that Mr. Monroe has passed away, somebody must carry on in the tradition. This is the first music I ever heard and played. All those years with Epic, I was prohibited from doing any bluegrass. They signed me to do country stuff and were always the first to tell me, 'Bluegrass doesn't sell.' For all those years I was held back from what I wanted to be playing."
"Bluegrass Rules" is no lark; Skaggs plans to divide his live sets between country and bluegrass. Somewhere, Bill Monroe is smiling and singing a chorus of "Orange Blossom Special."
"I love country music, and I believe we made some real good records, but it's time now to do the rest of the story," Skaggs said. "To try to hold me back now would be like trying to change a leopard's spots. This will be a brand-new career for me."
* Ricky Skaggs performs Thursday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. Anthony Rivera & Raining Horseshoes and Bill Davis open, 8 p.m. Tickets, $28.50. (714) 957-0600.