Country singer Ricky Skaggs was born in 1954 in Kentucky, where he started his career as a bluegrass superstar. As a child, Skaggs fostered his talent for music by harmonizing with his mother's singing and taking mandolin lessons. After performing country music throughout the '70s in Tennessee, Skaggs made his major label debut in 1981. From there, Skaggs' career skyrocketed with several No. 1 country albums, including the popular album Country Boy.
Singer and musician Ricky Lee Skaggs was born on July 18, 1954, in Cordell, Kentucky, a small Appalachian town along the Big Sandy River near the West Virginia border. His mother, Dorothy, and his father, Hobert—a welder—were both passionate music lovers with a particular taste for bluegrass. Skaggs quickly adopted his parents' musical tastes. "They loved Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers," he recalled. "That was their favorite bluegrass groups. I grew up listening to them because my folks loved 'em so much. And I got to where I dug it too."
Skaggs also inherited his parents' musical talent. One day, when the boy was only 3 years old, his father noticed that he was harmonizing with his mother singing across the house as he played with his toys. Before he turned 4, he was singing harmony parts with his mother at church and family gatherings. At the age of 5, he began taking mandolin lessons from his father. Hobert Skaggs had only taught his son a few chords when he left town for a work trip, and when he returned two weeks later, he discovered that Ricky had taught himself various chord progressions and was effortlessly singing along while he played.
By the age of 6, Skaggs had become something of a local celebrity because of his prodigious musical talents. That year he went to see Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, perform in Martha, Kentucky, and the crowd insisted that "Little Ricky Skaggs" get up onstage and perform. Monroe, happy to oblige, placed his own mandolin around Skaggs' neck and watched in awe as the youngster played and sang with skill and poise far beyond his years.
Early Music Career
In 1961, when Skaggs was still only 7 years old, the family moved to Nashville, Tennessee, home of the Grand Ole Opry, so that he could grow up in the nerve center of bluegrass and country music. Later that year, Skaggs made his professional debut playing the mandolin (with the famous bluegrass band Flatt and Scruggs) on Martha White's syndicated television show; he earned $52.50 for his performance.
In 1969, Skaggs befriended a young guitarist and singer named Keith Whitley, a fellow Kentuckian, and the two of them started a band called the East Kentucky Mountain Boys. They mostly performed covers of songs by the Clinch Mountain Boys, the famous bluegrass band headed by brothers Carter and Ralph Stanley. One night in 1970, Skaggs and Whitley went to see the Clinch Mountain Boys perform in West Virginia, but the band showed up late so the club owner invited Skaggs and Whitley onstage to perform instead. "I walked in," Ralph Stanley remembered, "and these two boys were singing the Stanley Brothers' music better than the Stanley Brothers."
A year later, the Stanley Brothers invited both men to join the Clinch Mountain Boys. From 1971 to 1974, Skaggs performed and recorded with the band while also releasing a 1972 album with Whitley entitled Second Generation Bluegrass on the small label Rebel Records. In 1974, Skaggs left the Clinch Mountain Boys to join the Country Gentlemen, another bluegrass band, and in 1975 he and Whitley teamed up again on the single "That's It."
After briefly performing with his own band, Boone Creek, in 1977 the great bluegrass singer Emmylou Harris invited Skaggs to join her Hot Band; his playing was a driving force behind the breakthrough success of her 1980 album Roses in the Snow. Harris also sang on Skaggs' 1979 solo album Sweet Temptation, which, while not commercially successful, marked Skaggs' transition to a more mainstream country sound. He traded in the banjo for tap drums and electric bass and featured fuller vocal harmonies while still maintaining strong elements of bluegrass.
In 1981, Skaggs made his major label debut on Epic Records with Waitin' for the Sun to Shine, landing two No. 1 singles on the country charts with "Crying My Heart Out Over You" and "I Don't Care." Propelled by his debut album, throughout the rest of the 1980s Skaggs' bluegrass-themed music enjoyed a near ubiquitous presence atop the country music charts.
He later scored three consecutive No. 1 country albums with Highways & Heartaches (1982), Don't Cheat in Our Hometown (1983) and Country Boy (1984). These albums featured No. 1 country singles such as "I Wouldn't Change You If I Could," "Highway 40 Blues," "Don't Cheat in Our Hometown" and "Country Boy." While not quite as commercially successful as his early 1980s albums, Skaggs nevertheless achieved major hits with subsequent records such as Love's Gonna Get Ya! (1986), Comin' Home to Stay (1988) and Kentucky Thunder (1989).
While Skaggs has yet to recapture the popularity he enjoyed during the 1980s, he has continued to record and tour with considerable success over the past two decades. His 1990s albums include My Father's Son (1991), Solid Ground (1995) and Bluegrass Rules! (1997), a throwback to traditional bluegrass. Skaggs continues to record and during the past decade, he's released numerous recordings including Salt of the Earth (2007), a gospel album, Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass (2008), Songs My Dad Loved (2009), Mosaic (2010), Country Hits Bluegrass Style (2011), The Whites & Family: A Skaggs Family Christmas Volume 2 (2011), Music To My Ears (2012), Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby: Cluck Ol’ Hen [Live] (2013) and Ricky Skaggs & Sharon White: Hears Like Ours (2014).
Ricky Skaggs stands out as one of the greatest country singers and musicians of recent decades, a musical prodigy who started out backing up greats like Bill Monroe and Emmylou Harris before breaking out as a star in his own right during the 1980s. In recent years, assuming the role of elder statesman of country music, Skaggs has sought to keep alive and pass on the great bluegrass tradition he inherited.
"I feel like my mission in life is to introduce a new generation of listeners to this music," he said in a recent interview. "I'm always conscious and mindful that there's a lot of people sitting out there listening to me that don't know where this music came from. So it's important to me to introduce them to Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanleys and Monroes, and show people where the music came from, talk about 'em, talk about the sacrifice that they made riding around in a station wagon, or six people deep in an old limousine riding around the country."
Skaggs married Sharon White, lead singer of the country music band The Whites, in 1981.
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