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Ricky Skaggs is a legendary country and bluegrass singer and mandolin player.
Singer, musician. Ricky Lee Skaggs was born 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 three years old, his father noticed that he was harmonizing with his mother singing across the house as he played with his toys. Before his fourth birthday, Ricky was singing harmony parts with his mother at church and family gatherings. At the age of five, 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 six, 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.
In 1961, when Skaggs was still only seven 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.
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The "high, lonesome" style that defines the bluegrass sound comes from the experiences of the music's original composers, the Scots-Irish immigrants of Appalachia. Early bluegrass musician Lester Flatt brought the sound of the genre into the popular lexicon in 1948, when he helped found The Foggy Mountain Boys. He was joined by fellow musician Earl Scruggs, who expertly picked his banjo in the three-finger style that is carried on in the music of bluegrass great Ricky Skaggs. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Alison Krauss snagged more than 26 Grammy awards for putting a contemporary twist on the music of her bluegrass predecessors—proof that the genre still resonantes with listeners.
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