Ricky Skaggs Keeps Bluegrass Relevant at Triumphant Ryman Show
Ricky Skaggs and his band, Kentucky Thunder, put a major win on the scoreboard for real, live music during their sold-out set at Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium on Thursday night (July 27).
The Grammy, CMA and ACM winner — who's also a Country Music Hall of Fame inductee — performed at the "Mother Church" of country music as part of the Bluegrass Nights at the Ryman series, which he told the sold-out audience was his "favorite show of the year."
The 69-year-old country music icon is like a living representative of bluegrass history, and he and his ace band of musicians embodied that during their show at the Ryman, drawing not only from the more commercial aspects of Skaggs' career by performing hits including "Highway 40 Blues," but also from the long arc of bluegrass history, choosing selections from the Stanley Brothers, Jim & Jesse, Osborne Brothers and more.
A scorching version of "Rocky Top" closed the first half of the evening, but Skaggs saved much of the best music for the second half of the night, including a new instrumental song titled "Rockland Road," another new track titled "One or the Other" and several spotlight pieces on his band members in Kentucky Thunder, including a solo song from guitarist/singer Dennis Parker that earned an emotional standing ovation.
Skaggs tells Taste of Country that he has a longstanding connection to the Ryman, where he first went backstage when he was 7 years old in 1961.
"Mr. Bell was the backstage guard, and somehow, he and my dad made friends," Skaggs relates. "My dad may have traded a pocketknife with him to get us backstage. I don't know. But he just said, 'Don't let that boy touch anybody's instruments.'"
Skaggs was standing against a wall playing his mandolin when Earl Scruggs came along and saw him, and the legendary musician told Skaggs' father to bring his son to audition for his television show, which helped launch his career. Skaggs would go on to play with Scruggs, Emmylou Harris and more before launching a hugely successful solo career in the 1980s. He returned to his roots in 1997 by releasing Bluegrass Rules! via Rounder Records, and in the years since, he's become the principal ambassador for bluegrass of his generation.
Skaggs says kids like his former self hold the key to the future of bluegrass, and live music in general.
"They're learning how to play their instruments," he says. "And God bless 'em ... I always tell moms and dads to bring their kids out to hear us play live music. It's impressive to go out and see live music, especially if you're young.
"It can really make a difference," he adds, citing the first time he, himself, saw Bill Monroe in person as a life-changing event.
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder will return to the Ryman Auditorium on Dec. 10 for a special Christmas show in 2023. Visit the venue's website for more information.