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A Conversation With Ricky Skaggs

The country music stalwart chats about his latest album, ‘Music to My Ears.’

Illustration: Sam Sisco

Cowboys & Indians: Your latest album, Music to My Ears, offers a great balance of country and bluegrass songs. But “What You Are Waiting For,” an old-fashioned love song, is one of the best.

Ricky Skaggs: It’s one of my favorites as well. And there’s a funny story about that song. When Gordon Kennedy wrote it, he wrote it about his wife. He used to be in a Christian group, White Heart, and while they were up in Indiana, he met Tracey — his wife now — at a show. I mean, he just happened to look down into the audience, and there she was. So when he wrote the song, his lyric was, “Found my girl in Indiana.” And when he sent it to me, I said, “Well, I guess I can sing it that way ...”

C&I: But you wanted to personalize it?

Ricky: That’s right. He asked me where I met my wife, Sharon. And I said, “Kilgore, Texas.” And so the songwriter inside him immediately found a rhythm and a rhyme for it, so he could change it to, “Found my girl in Kilgore, Texas.” And I loved that. But I never told Sharon that we’d changed the words from the demo that she’d heard. And then after I recorded the song, and got it mixed and everything, I asked her to come by the studio to hear some of the stuff we’d recorded for the album. We got her all seated there by the console. And when she heard my voice come on, saying, “Kilgore, Texas,” she just dropped her head. She was just so taken and touched by it. And she turned around and said, “You did that just for me?” And I said, “Yes.”

C&I: Bet that earned you a lot of points.

Ricky: [Laughs.] Well, that just goes to show you how a love song can still have a prominent place in country music. You don’t really find that in a lot of other kinds of music these days. But there’s something about country music — a love song always seems to find its place there ... and find an audience.

C&I: You pay tribute to the late, great Doc Watson on Music to My Ears with your recording of “Tennessee Stud.” Why that particular song?

Ricky: Oh, there are so dang many Doc Watson songs that would have been great. But I chose “Tennessee Stud” because of the popularity of the song. [Laughs.] Not necessarily that it would make me more popular. But I can just imagine people listening to the record and smiling, and saying, “Yeah, I remember hearing Doc sing that.” Because Doc is the one who really brought that song to the bluegrass marketplace. Eddy Arnold had the first hit on it. And a lot of other people recorded it as well. But Doc is the one who really made it popular for our generation.

C&I: You also honor bluegrass great Bill Monroe with “You Can’t Hurt Ham,” a very funny tune you cowrote with Gordon Kennedy.

Ricky: Well, it’s just a true story. Supposedly, Mr. Monroe was hungry one night, and they were on the road — and there was no place to eat. And a banjo player that was working with Mr. Monroe at the time, he had driven up from somewhere in Alabama to join Mr. Monroe in Nashville for the tour. And his mama had made him some country ham biscuits. He’d put them back there in his bunk in the back of the bus. So when Mr. Monroe said he was hungry, well, the banjo player figured those biscuits might get him down the road, or whatever. But he warned him that they were pretty old. And Mr. Monroe said: “Son, just bring ’em to me. ’Cause you know, you can’t hurt ham.”

C&I: Speaking again of Gordon, he’s pretty much a Nashville living legend as a songwriter and producer. He coproduced Mosaic, your last album, as well as this one. What makes him a good collaborator?

Ricky: Well, he was a fan for a long time, since he was in his late teens, early 20s. But more important, his dad, Jerry Kennedy, was a great producer here in Nashville, too, at Mercury Records for many years. So Gordon’s grown up with a lot of really great music in his house. And he and I have got a lot of the same taste in music. But what I really like is, Gordon really listens to what I do. And he doesn’t try to change who I am. He just wants to enhance who I am, and what I do. He always seems to get the best out of me. I trust Gordon. I trust his ear. And I trust his heart.


Find out more about Ricky Skaggs here.

 

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