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By Ricky Skaggs. It Books. 352 pages. $26
Thursday, September 19, 2013
Ricky Skaggs’ life has played out like a grand tour of a living, breathing Country Music Hall of Fame.
Casual music fans who recognize Skaggs’ name only from his big-haired heyday in the 1980s might not realize he was a mandolin prodigy who, as an eastern Kentucky schoolboy, shared stages with the likes of “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe, the legendary duo Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and Southwest Virginia’s Stanley Brothers, Carter and Ralph. As a teen ager, he and buddy Keith Whitley were recruited to join Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys, which introduced Skaggs to the bluegrass festival circuit, as well as to the ready availability of homemade liquor in the Virginia hills.
As he recounts in his memoir, “Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music,” Skaggs, 58, was inspired to chart his own musical course, a star-studded trail that would lead away from bluegrass music and intersect with the greatest names in country (and even rock) music — Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris and practically every member of the Grand Ole Opry.
His platinum-plated career, which included No. 1 hits “Heartbroke,” “Highway 40 Blues” and nine others, would wane, however, as country music fans and record label honchos began to favor more pop- and rock-flavored “country” singers, who these days are more influenced by Bon Jovi than Bill Monroe. So, Skaggs doubled back to where it all began and formed his bluegrass ensemble, the hot-picking Kentucky Thunder, one of the most successful acts in bluegrass today.
“Kentucky Traveler” is a folksy, plain-spoken story that is part music odyssey, part family saga and part Christian manifesto. The devoutly evangelical Skaggs spends much of the book recounting his religious upbringing, remembering his mother’s prayers and reciting many favorite Bible verses he tries to live by. He also frets about the status of other people’s souls, including Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, with whom Skaggs worked briefly on an album of George Jones songs. The book’s preaching will inspire some readers and probably turn off others.
Skaggs’ religious beliefs have never kept him from working with a diverse array of musicians, including his liberal-leaning buddy Bruce Hornsby. The pair’s new live album of classic bluegrass songs, “Cluck Ol’ Hen,” just went to No. 1 on the Billboard bluegrass charts.
Even the secular fan will find much to enjoy in Skaggs’ plethora of country music stories, which include the night he and Whitley were discovered by Ralph Stanley in a West Virginia bar. Stanley’s band was late arriving for a gig because of a flat tire, so the bar owner asked the two boys to play a set of music to keep the crowd happy. When Stanley arrived, he was so impressed with the two Kentucky singers and pickers — who so reminded Stanley of himself and his dead brother — he eventually hired them, launching what would become two lucrative music careers.
Skaggs’ and Whitley’s paths split after a few years, so Skaggs doesn’t shed much light on Whitley’s subsequent alcoholism and death in 1989, a loss that removed one of country music’s distinctive voices of the 1980s.
Roanoke fans will remember the story of the near tragedy that occurred on Interstate 81 in 1986, when Skaggs’ young son was shot and injured by a drugged-out tractor-trailer driver in Botetourt County. The boy survived, and Skaggs recounts how doctors at Roanoke Memorial Hospital (now Carilion Roanoke Memorial) saved his son’s life.
Skaggs shares poignant memories of his father, a laborer and musician who taught his son to play and who formed a family band around the young gun, but who would eventually have to let the boy go his own way.
Skaggs wrote the book with Eddie Dean, a longtime journalist who co- wrote Ralph Stanley’s well-received memoir nearly four years ago. With “Kentucky Traveler,” Skaggs tells a good story from the hillbilly highway, where music and faith have sustained him through five decades of joys, sorrows, losses and, ultimately, rebirth. Country fans, especially the more religiously inclined, won’t be “heartbroke” over this story.
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