Bluegrass and country legend Ricky Skaggs tells his story

“Kentucky Traveler — My Life in Music” by Ricky Skaggs with Eddie Dean (ITBooks, 338 pages, $25.99)

When Ricky Skaggs was five years old, he awakened one morning to discover that someone had placed a child-size mandolin on his bed.

Young Ricky was delighted. His father had obtained the instrument at a pawn shop in Lima, Ohio, and brought it home to present to his son.

Ricky Skaggs has been playing the mandolin ever since. His mastery of the instrument is legendary. Skaggs just published his memoir, “Kentucky Traveler — My Life in Music.” Skaggs related his story to Eddie Dean, the writer who helped bluegrass legend Dr. Ralph Stanley write his memoir, “Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times,” a few years ago.

I caught up with Ricky Skaggs on the telephone recently for an interview. He said he had asked Dean to help him out with the book after he established that he could trust him to replicate his Kentucky cadences and expressions.

Here’s how the first chapter begins: “I was young when I left my home up in the mountains, but the mountains never left me. It don’t matter how many years I’ve been gone or how many miles I’ve traveled. Where I come from is who I am, head to toe. It’s there in the way I sing and the way I talk and the way I pray. Country as a stick!”

He continues: “I grew up in the hills of eastern Kentucky in a hollow called Brushy Creek. My mom and my dad were spiritual people, and we went to a little Free Will Baptist church where I grew up hearing gospel music and old-time preaching. Real fire-and-brimstone stuff, where they preached so loud you grew up thinking the Lord must surely be hard of hearing.”

In “Kentucky Traveler” Skaggs describes those life-changing moments along life’s highway. There was bluegrass icon Bill Monroe: “slowly he took his great big F-5 Loar Gibson mandolin off his shoulder, carefully wrapping the old leather bootstrap around the curl of the instrument’s body until it fit me just right, and then he hung it on my shoulders.

“It was the first time I’d ever seen a mandolin that big, much less held one.”

His parents recognized and nurtured his musical gifts but even the young prodigy could get tired of the constant practicing. Sometimes when his dad wasn’t looking, Ricky would intentionally break a string knowing that a replacement would have be bought so he could take a brief break from his instrument.

When young Ricky appeared on the Flatt and Scruggs TV show, he couldn’t watch the program. He told me that “I freaked.” Skaggs hid under his bed while it aired. But he still listened. Thirty years later he finally watched an old tape of it.

Ralph Stanley was an early mentor. There’s a wonderful story about the time Ricky and his buddy Keith Whitley took the barroom stage and played old Stanley Brothers tunes to buy some time as the crowd waited for a tardy Stanley and his band to arrive. Later on when Ricky was a member of that same band he offered to clean Ralph’s banjo with hilarious results.

Ricky Skaggs has had many career highlights. He has also experienced some very low points. If you love bluegrass or country music, you’ll love hearing these stories.

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