Clearly country-and-bluegrass great Ricky Skaggs didn’t think it could get any better than having Garth Brooks, whom he called “the biggest name in country music anywhere in the world,” induct him into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
And yet on this night at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Brooks — and, for that matter, Skaggs — were one-upped by something else: perhaps the most famous and precious piece of history in the museum, the mandolin of Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass.
The 95-year-old instrument permanently resides, like a crown jewel, behind thick glass in the museum, but the decision was made for it to come out on Sunday night and be played by Skaggs, a mandolin master who’s unsurpassed in carrying on Monroe’s legacy.
Shocked by its sudden arrival on stage, Skaggs, 64, grinned as he swung the mandolin strap over his shoulder, gingerly cradled the instrument, and offered it a greeting, “Hi, old man.”
Strumming the Gibson F-5’s sturdy strings, Skaggs then traded verses with Brooks, also a Hall of Famer, on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the anthem of country music that traditionally closes the ceremony.
Just how extraordinary was the moment? Imagine the Smithsonian letting the original Star-Spangled Banner be run up a flagpole for the singing of the national anthem.
The mandolin’s appearance capped the three-hour invitation-only ceremony in the CMA Theater that also featured the posthumous inductions of country queen Dottie West, whose three-decades-long career included such hits as “Country Sunshine” and “A Lesson in Leavin’,” and fiddle virtuoso Johnny Gimble.
In Brook’s induction remarks, he credited Skaggs, Reba McEntire and George Strait — now all in the Hall — for singlehandedly saving the sanctity of country music in the early 1980s.
“Reba and George were holding it down, but the winds of change were blowing so hard,” Brooks recalled. “Skaggs came at the right time, and … those three held it down long enough until Randy Travis showed up and nailed it to the floor.”
Travis, who was at the ceremony, earned a standing ovation for the remark; he was inducted into the Hall by Brooks two years ago.
For the Sunday event, Brooks flew in from South Bend, Indiana, where he’d performed the night before at a sold-out Notre Dame Stadium concert. He honored Skaggs in performance as well, joining singer-songwriter Larry Cordle and celebrated mandolinist Sierra Hull on Skaggs’ 1983 No. 1 hit “Highway 40 Blues,” which Cordle wrote.
Chris Stapleton also came to play, offering “Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn” in honor of Skaggs’ years in Emmylou Harris’ groundbreaking Hot Band. Skaggs and Harris, who was also in attendance, sang it as a duet on Harris’ bluegrass-infused 1980 album Roses in the Snow.
Bluegrass devotee Dierks Bentley paid tribute to Skaggs’ contributions with “You’ve Got a Lover,” a 1983 hit. In his introduction, Bentley credited Second-Generation Bluegrass, a 1971 album recorded by Skaggs and the legendary Keith Whitley, in his early efforts to learn how to sing harmony — “an effort,” Bentley said, “I’m still working on 25 years later.”
After Brooks and museum CEO Kyle Young unveiled the plaque that will hang in the Hall of Fame rotunda, Skaggs offered his gratitude to “the fathers and mothers that are in this Hall [who] literally built bluegrass and country music from the ground up.”
A child prodigy raised in eastern Kentucky, Skaggs had already played with bluegrass pinnacles Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs by the time he was 10 years old. At age 6, he attended a Monroe concert, and the hometown crowd kept yelling for the master to let “little Ricky Skaggs” play. Monroe finally gave in, lifted the youngster onto the stage, and strapped his own mandolin on the boy so he could show off his chops.
It was the very same instrument Skaggs played on Sunday night — 58 years later — and he talked to it like a lifelong friend.
“Most people, they credit Mr. Monroe for starting bluegrass,” Skaggs said, speaking directly to the mandolin, “but I can tell you, he couldn’t have done it without you.”
Skaggs paused to savor the music he’d just made with the singular instrument, which is kept in performance condition by the museum.
“It’s the sound,” he told the audience. “Did you all hear that sound? It causes your gut to feel warm. It’s amazing.”
As he said his goodbyes, Skaggs leaned over and gently kissed the instrument, assuring the mandolin it was always safe in his hands. “I know you were as nervous as a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs when I was 6 years old and holding you,” he said, “but I didn’t let you go then, either.”