To all those musicians out there, it may come as a surprise and comfort to know that even Ricky Skaggs still has to work at his craft.
“I’ve been sitting and trying to figure out this Bill Monroe solo,” Skaggs said, referencing the mandolin virtuoso and bluegrass pioneer. “It’s another one of those, ‘What’s he thinking?’ Some of his solos are very intricate, very hard to duplicate. I’ll kind of get around it and play something like and find the spirit of it.”
That desire to keep stretching artistically is what has kept Skaggs and his music going over a career spanning six decades and collaborations with some of the biggest names in music. He performs Friday at the Orpheum with his band Kentucky Thunder.
Skaggs turned 60 last summer. His long career can be attributed to the fact that he started performing at age 6, appearing the next year on the Martha White show with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. A black-and-white YouTube clip shows the young mandolin whiz tugging on Flatt’s coat before leading the band in “Foggy Mountain Special.”
Skaggs laughs as he recalls his reaction to seeing himself on TV for the first time.
“I ran into my bedroom and got under my bed and would not watch that show,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I was so shy, so backward. I was a mountain kid.”
As a teenager, Skaggs teamed up with Keith Whitley (later known for “When You Say Nothing At All”), then joined bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley’s band. He was also part of the influential New South and Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band. He’s won a slew of Grammy, Country Music Association and International Bluegrass Music Association awards.
Skaggs made a big turn back to traditional music after the death of his hero, Monroe, in 1996, replacing drums, piano and steel guitar in his band with banjo, fiddle and other mandolin.
“I decided to come back to bluegrass, to be a leader … and went into what (Nashville’s) Music Row considered an insignificant portion of the pie.”
But he also continued to perform with artists such as Bruce Hornsby, Phish, Jack White and Barry Gibb. An upcoming project with Ry Cooder is in the works.
Another recent collaboration is close to home. Skaggs and his wife, Sharon White, herself part of a well-known music family, last year released a CD called “Hearts Like Ours.” Although the two have been married since 1981 and won the CMA vocal duo of the year in 1987 for the single “Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This,” they had never recorded an entire album together.
Skaggs said waiting might not have been a bad thing.
“I think the kind of record we’ve made, we would not have made that kind of record in 1989, We would have been narrowing the list of songs down just because radio would or wouldn’t have played them. With this record, we never gave that a second thought. We went for the good song, the great song, every time.’’
Skaggs hold out hope that White might join him here. The couple have two grown children, both also musicians.
“She’s not scheduled to right now, but I’m always trying to get her to go with us whenever she can. This new duet CD we have is so good, I’d love to be able to do some of them.”
Skaggs promises a diverse show, ranging from Gospel music to older country hits like “Highway 40 Blues.” But bluegrass will take center stage, as Skaggs believes his current crop of fans prefer.
“When they hear so much music that’s scripted in a box and synthesized and all that, then they hear live instrument, people standing on stage that can play an instrument and play it well, it’s really something to behold.”
He’ll probably even have that Bill Monroe solo figured out by then.
If You Go
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder
Where: The Orpheum, 200 N. Broadway
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Tickets: $35 and $45, www.selectaseat.com or 1-855-755-7328