You can sing up a storm, drawl “y’all” and pretend to be just folks till the cows come home, but the acid test for acceptance in Nashville is how you fare in the Country Music Association awards. So when rookie Ricky Skaggs ambled off last week with CMA trophies for male vocalist and newcomer of the year (he was nominated in three other categories), it was not just a simple seal of approval but a bona fide music-industry bear hug.
With a becoming dash of down-home humility, Skaggs says, “I feel very honored, but I don’t believe in those awards a bit more than I can fly. Just having my name up there with my heroes George Jones and Merle Haggard was enough.” Still, no less a blue-grass blueblood than Chet Atkins believes Skaggs has earned a spot in that pantheon. “Ricky is one helluva singer and picker,” he says. “Folks like him can save country music.” Though he is only 28, Skaggs’ dedication to an undiluted brand of country has given new hope to traditionalists who feared their musical heritage was endangered by pop miscegenation. “I’m as country as corn bread,” asserts Skaggs. “I don’t think I could go pop if I had a mouthful of firecrackers.”
Nonetheless, his records have hit the country charts with a bang. His first solo LP on a major label, Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine, produced two No. 1 singles (I Don’t Care and Crying My Heart Out Over You) and sold an impressive 400,000 copies last year. His new collection, Highways and Heartaches, has just been released and is expected to be another winner.
Happily, Skaggs has achieved all this without committing the cardinal sin—in Nashville at least—of “going Hollywood.” Ricky eschews sequins and other finery onstage, performing instead in open shirt and jeans. “I’m going to be myself if it harelips every cow in Texas,” he insists. “I think part of my acceptance has been that people know this guy is real. He’s good-hearted and believes in the Lord.”
Skaggs’ Christian roots go back to his upbringing in eastern Kentucky as the third of four children. “Everything you can imagine possible goes on in those mountains,” he says. “I dearly loved it, but you couldn’t pay me enough to go back and live there.” His musical mentor was his father, a construction welder who had his son playing the mandolin by age 5 and tried to keep him from playing ball, says Ricky, “so I wouldn’t break my fingers.”
Leaving high school just a few months short of graduation, Skaggs moved in 1972 with a new bride to Dumfries, Va. He was working as a boiler operator, but before long he drifted into the burgeoning Washington, D.C. music scene. He later met, among others, a young singer named Emmylou Harris. In 1977 she asked him to join her Hot Band. Skaggs moved to L.A. and helped Harris and her producer husband, Brian Ahern, fashion some of her finest music. The withering professional pace, however, all but burned him out by 1979. With his marriage breaking up and a case of double pneumonia, he returned to Nashville and was hospitalized. He recalls, “I felt like the Lord was saying, ‘Look, you can kill yourself or you can slow down and let Me help you.’ So I rededicated my life as a believing Christian.”
Last year Skaggs, whose two children, Mandy, 5, and Andrew, 3, live with their mother, married Sharon White, 29, a member of the respected bluegrass family of Buck White. The couple has just moved into a four-bedroom country house outside of Nashville. Offstage, most of Ricky’s energies are spent playing and recording music. He recently produced a single for his in-law clan which is now climbing up the chart.
Skaggs, who neither smokes nor drinks, isn’t completely comfortable on the honky-tonk circuit, but he says it’s the perfect milieu for his evangelical Christianity. “Being able to take my music into a bar and sing about suffering to people who may not have been in a church for 20 years is what I’m supposed to do,” he says earnestly. “That one song may cause them to set their drinks down and think about what they’re doing with their lives.”