BOOK REVIEW - "Kentucky Traveler, My Life In Music " by Ricky Skaggs

Reviewed by: W.J. Hallock

PRESCRIPTION BLUEGRASS IMAGE  - KENTUCKY TRAVELER BOOK COVER      It irritates me to no end that The Country Music Hall of Fame and the Bluegrass Hall of Fame have not seen fit to add the name RICKY SKAGGS to their hallowed wall’s! There is not a more deserving artist in Nashville, or the world for that matter, and after reading his auto biography “Kentucky Traveler, My Life In Music,” I’m even more dumb-founded. The book is filled with the facts, the stories, the history and the truth of just who Ricky Skaggs is. The book is also written so well that you can almost hear Ricky reading the words to you with his recognizable Kentucky accent. I couldn’t put it down, and would find myself still reading it at three in the morning.

      Ricky, with the help of noted music journalist Eddie Dean, starts with his childhood, growing up in Brushy Creek, in Lawrence County of East Kentucky. I checked, and it’s not even on a map.  I did however find the town of Martha, Kentucky, just up the road, where Ricky made his stage debut sitting PRESCRIPTION BLUEGRASS IMAGE - BOOK REVIEW PULL QUOTEin with none other than the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. Singing the Osborne Brothers hit “Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man,” little six year old Ricky, playing Bill’s famous F-5 Lloyd Loar Gibson mandolin, began his storied career in country and bluegrass music with a bang!

       There are three threads that intertwine throughout the book….. Ricky’s love for his family, his love for his music and the strength of his religious beliefs. Ricky tells his story very simply, using the Kentucky colloquialisms of his raising, revealing how each thread gave him his start, carried him through the good and the bad times of his musical career and continue to serve him well today, deep into his 59th year. The wonderful assets of having been on stage for over half a century, his talents, personality, forward thinking tenacity and convictions have combined to make him the elder statesman of bluegrass music today, and he will continue to be for years to come. But, more importantly, his music is still growing and is up to the minute relevant! Pay attention young’uns….. Ricky’s here for the long haul!

       My first recollections of Ricky were when he became a member of Emmylou Harris’ HOT BAND in mid 1979. Ricky goes over that period in detail, documenting his work on her albums “Blue Kentucky Girl,” “Roses In The Snow” and “Light of The Stable.” I’d always wondered who had given him the nickname “Picky Ricky,” and he reveals that it was Emmylou who laid that moniker on him. Ricky, in turn, gave those three albums that acoustic, bluegrass and old time country sound with his vocals, fiddle, mandolin, banjo and guitar playing. He and the Whites, Sharon and Cheryl, along with Dolly Parton, also gave to the last two albums what I consider, the most beautiful harmonies ever heard at that time. Ricky is very appreciative as to just how important Emmylou was to his career in country music. His apprenticeship under Emmylou’s producer/husband, Brian Ahern, lit the fires of his studio education at the same time. 

      Hang on! Hang on! Hang on!…..  I just realized that I’m telling you, the reader, what interested me the most, and I could go further into all the aspects of Ricky’s career that I’ve personally enjoyed, followed and had questions about through the years. I don’t want to take away from what I said earlier about this book having three parallel threads running through it. All three subjects, family, music and the Lord, go hand in hand throughout the book, and I’d like for it to be up to you to find what you like best. Believe me, there are so many details he shares, including sixteen pages of personal photos of his family and career.

    There will be those fans who will love the stories of his youth, and how Dorothy and Hobert Skaggs, his parents, instilled in him his love for bluegrass music by buying him his first mandolin at age five. Some will love the stories of his religious upbringing in the Free Will Baptist Church, the old time hymns he learned and his decision to be baptized. Others will love the story of Ricky being on the Martha White TV show with Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys at the ripe old age of seven. The stories go on and on, and there’s never a dull moment in the book. I have found myself going back and re-reading certain chapters just because I was afraid I had missed some minute detail.

      Ricky spends time telling of his brotherly relationship with the late Keith Whitley and their time, starting when  they were both only sixteen years old in 1970, when they worked with Ralph Stanley. The trials and temptations of being on the road with Keith, and his death in 1989 reveal just how close they were. It also reveals how Ricky’s faith in God was the rock he leaned on when tested by the events in his life.

      There are some revelations and events that were important in Ricky’s life that he shares in great detail, others that he only skims the surface of. With all he’s done, this book could have been a lot longer than 335 pages and still been interesting. When his young son, Andrew, was shot in a road rage incident on August 17th, 1986, in Roanoke, VA, you can feel just how terrified he was in the way he relates it. When he talks about Andrew’s recovery and the lessons he learned from his young son about forgiveness and anger, he bares his soul openly and honestly. That’s what makes this book such a treasure, how honest and forth coming he is in telling his story. Mind you, there were people he could have eviscerated for the whole world to see, but, that wouldn’t have been Ricky. That wouldn’t have been the right thing to do in his mind. He’s definitely the bigger man for believing in that mind set.

      A fortuitous plane ride from L.A. to Nashville opened the corporate doors, and it was a pivotal moment for his career. He goes through getting his first big record deal with Rick Blackburn and Epic records, calling it “definitely a God thing,“ and all PRESCRIPTION BLUEGRASS IMAGE  -  RICKY SKAGGSthe high times when he was on top of the charts with his country sound. He talks of that point in time when country music was changing, he wasn’t the new kid in town any more, and the seeds were sown to go back to his first love, bluegrass music. Bill Monroe was his guru and friend, the Reverend Billy Graham his spiritual guide and he and his wife, Sharon White Skaggs, continue their life as soul mates and parents.

      I came away from reading this book thinking that Ricky thinks he’s the luckiest man on this Earth! And he should be….  he’s stood his ground commercially with HIS music, and he’s run that business from a “Christian perspective,” to quote Ricky himself. He values his ancestors and the combined Skaggs/White family, he takes his role as Dad to his four kids seriously and lovingly and he knows the path he’s supposed to follow with the Bible as his guide. Chapter’s and verse’s are included throughout this story to help him make important points. The book is dedicated to his mother, Dorothy Skaggs, his father, Hobert Skaggs and his musical Father, Bill Monroe. Just more proof that Ricky will never “get above his raising!”

      If my numbers are correct, Ricky Skaggs has won 14 Grammy Awards, 7 Country Music Association(CMA) Awards, including Entertainer of the Year for 1985 and 12 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Awards. Other accolades and awards aren’t included in those numbers. The body of work he has created is a cross section of genre’s, but none lack for brilliance. He has worked with the super stars of the world and holds his own on any stage, and he continues to hone his studio “chops” everyday. Ricky went about writing this book just like he creates his music, honestly giving it his all and the best that he has. This book is a must read in my opinion, so go get your copy!  I got mine from my wife for Christmas, and started it immediately. I’m not big on autographs, but, if I’d have had it when I talked to Ricky at the video taping of  “A Country Family Reunion, Simply Bluegrass,” which he co-hosted with Bill Anderson in Nashville last November 12th, that’s one signature I would have surely asked for, and prized. Now…..  if we can just get the powers to be to realize that his name needs to be on a Hall of Fame wall, or two, where it belongs!


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