Ricky Skaggs speaks about bluegrass music with an almost evangelical fervor. He plays it that way, too.
“The reason God loves bluegrass so much is its purity, its integrity,” says the 52-year-old singer-songwriter-mandolinist during a phone interview from his home in Nashville.
“Bluegrass is that pure mountain stream that people want to drink from ... the constant standard. I believe one of the mandates I have been given is to raise the bar for the quality and character of the music.”
Judging from all of the awards he has won, the critical acclaim funneled his way and his widespread reputation as the face of bluegrass, Skaggs has succeeded, and then some. His latest disc, “Instrumentals,” is nominated for a Grammy as best bluegrass album.
“I was really surprised `Instrumentals’ was nominated in the bluegrass category,” says Skaggs, who had written the material over the last eight years. “I thought the instrumental category maybe.
“It was time to get `em out there. ... It really was a culmination of Kentucky Thunder (his crackerjack backing sextet). The whole band played outside themselves.”
Kentucky Thunder - bassist Mark Fain; banjoist Jim Mills, banjo; fiddler Andy Leftwich, and guitarists Darrin Vincent, Paul Brewster and Cody Kilby - has been the International Bluegrass Music Association’s instrumental group of the year for seven of the last eight years.
“The message doesn’t change whether we play at a club or a church,” says Skaggs, noting that he played on New Year’s Eve in Charlotte, N.C., to a packed house at Morningstar Ministries, located on the site of the old Heritage Village once owned by disgraced PTL televangelist Jim Bakker. (Skaggs has been on the Morningstar board for 12 years, and his son, Luke, is finishing his senior year at the K-12 Comenius School for Christian Learning run by the group.)
“We’re Christians, and we believe in the power of music,” he points out. “We don’t call what we do a ministry because of the places we play. Most casino or club people wouldn’t want to book an act that calls itself that. But we throw in bluegrass and we throw in gospel as well.”
Skaggs’ devotion to bluegrass began as a child. He was an instrumental whiz, mastering the mandolin, banjo, guitar and fiddle as well as bluegrass singing. At age 6, during a show in Martha, Ky., he climbed on stage and played with Bill Monroe, widely acknowledged as the father of bluegrass music. At age 7, he appeared with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on their TV show, and at age 15, he and high school chum Keith Whitley became members of Ralph Stanley’s band.
After joining Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band in 1977, Skaggs found success in the 1980s in country music, recording several No. 1 singles (including “Crying My Heart Out Over You,” “I Don’t Care,” “Heartbroke,” “I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could” and “Highway 40 Blues”) and winning Grammy awards and, in 1985, the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year Award.
It wasn’t until 1996, after Monroe and his father died, that Skaggs returned to bluegrass. “I believed I was carrying on a legacy of purity and integrity,” says Skaggs. “That’s my calling.
“Bluegrass was 60 years old in 2006,” he adds. “I always try to bring some education when we play anywhere. The story needs to be told. A lot of people only know about it from Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek, but there is so much history to it.”
Given his “great relationship with the pillars of bluegrass,” Skaggs is planning a tribute album to Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs that he hopes to have ready by the fall.
“They recorded 28 or 29 tracks, but I may cut that down to 12 or 14 of my favorite things,” he says. “I’m also looking at some live music they did for a possible DVD. It’s a great undertaking, and I hope we pull that off.”
Another project in the works is a gospel album with his wife, Sharon. It would be his second. The first, “Soldier of the Cross,” was released in 1999 on his own Skaggs Family label, which he was operated since 1997.
“CBS never wanted me to do a gospel record. They felt it might offend my fans,” says Skaggs. “When I finally did one, it won both Grammy and a Dove award.”
Asked about his enduring love for the mandolin, Skaggs replies, “It was the first instrument I learned to play. My dad had a brother killed in Guam in the `40s. Dad made one of those vows to him, that if he ever had a son with musical ability he would get him started on the instrument.
“I love the way it sounds in my head. I hear music in my head even when I’m not playing it. It’s just a part of me, an extension of my heart. I know how to play the fiddle, guitar and clawhammer banjo. But I have a spiritual connection with the mandolin. I was made to play the mandolin.”