september 2011


A Bill Monroe Centennial Moment

‘That’s My Lifeline, That Sound And That Music’

Ricky Skaggs Remembers Bill Monroe

By David McGee

skaggs-monroe(Ed. Note: Had he lived, Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, would have been 100 years old on September 13. Mr. Bill is such a giant of American music that is honoring his centennial year with a Bill Monroe Centennial Moment each month throughout 2011. In this, his birthday month, Monroe is remembered by one of the giants of contemporary bluegrass, Ricky Skaggs, who regards Monroe’s music as “the foundation I stand on.” Ricky’s impassioned, informed insights into Monroe the man and the musician are gleaned from personal experience, as he was honored to call Bill Monroe friend and be called friend in return. We begin with the then-six-year-old Ricky’s first onstage encounter with Monroe.)

You played mandolin on stage with Bill Monroe when you were only six years old. How did that come about, what do you remember about the occasion and what do you remember about Mr. Monroe at the time?

Well, he was playing a small town, Martha, Kentucky, that had a post office, a store and a school. Dad took mom and us three kids up there to see him. I had been playing mandolin probably less than a year and was beginning to know how to play and sing along, that kind of stuff. We’d play at church, or at stores, wherever we would drag our instruments, set up and play—hillbilly buskers I guess is what we were. Anyway, we were sitting in the audience and after twenty or thirty minutes into the show I heard some of the neighbors calling out, “Let little Ricky Skaggs get up there and sing!” Then Bill would do another song and somebody else would shout out. Now I know, all these years later, when a heckler starts doing something like that you want to put a stop to it. I think Bill was just working with the audience when he said, “Where is that little Ricky Skaggs? Get him up here!” So I come walking up to the front of the stage and I don’t think he had a clue how little Ricky Skaggs was.

The stage was in a small gymnasium—real small gymnasium. They played basketball in there, but it seemed to be small to me. The stage was maybe three or four feet high, not eight or ten feet high like a lot of stages would be in a gymnasium, where people could see you. I walked up to the front of the stage and he just bent down, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me up on stage like you’d pick up a sack of potatoes or something. Set me on the stage and said, “What do you play there, boy?” And I said, “Well I play the mandolin.” He grins. “That right?” “Yes, sir!”

mandolinSo he took his mandolin off and just kind of wrapped the strap around the mandolin to where it would fit me, and put his big 1923 Gibson F-5 Lloyd Loar mandolin on me. Now my mandolin was about half that long, so this was guitar-size to my little body. He asked me what I wanted to sing and I said “Ruby.” Everybody knew the song “Ruby” because the Osborne Brothers—Bob and Sonny Osborne—had it out as a hit about that time, I think late ‘50s when they had that out. That would have been 1960, I guess, I was born in 1954—yes, 1960 was when this all came down. So the band knew it and just kicked into it. I sang the song and chopped rhythm on his mandolin and sang “Ruby” while the crowd went wild for their home town kid up there with the Grand Ole Opry. After that he took his mandolin off me and put it on him and sat me back down like the sack of potatoes that I was.

The Osborne Brothers, ‘Ruby.’ This was the song six-year-old Ricky Skaggs selected to play onstage with Bill Monroe in Martha, Kentucky, in 1960

I look back now and realize, in hindsight, that was the first of many installments that he poured into my life musically. That couldn’t have come at a better time. I was very impressionable, I had heard Bill Monroe, I had heard his name—we listened to the Opry all the time. We had an old 78 RPM record player and we had the 78s that Bill had recorded—they finally came out. Those songs that he recorded with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, when they were in the band, with Chubby Wise and all, didn’t even come out until after Flatt and Scruggs had left the band and started their own band. Late ‘40s, early ‘50s, those things came out. Columbia was really behind the curve on bluegrass music. Of course nobody was calling it bluegrass in those days, but they were really behind. Every time I think about this I thank God for WSM, the 50,000 watt furnace radio station that was blasting music all over the U.S. Had it not been for WSM and the Grand Ole Opry that music never would have caught on. That was the launching area for bluegrass, because, here again, the record labels just never tipped their hats to it. They didn’t know what it was, they weren’t real excited about banjos, felt it was very hillbilly, very rural, was only going to appeal to people in the mountains and the hills. But WSM gave the musicians a name, a sound and recognition to where, when they went out on personal appearances, they would be able to draw crowds to see them. What really launched the music was WSM; it was not Columbia Records.

In what ways have you been inspired by Bill Monroe? Not just when you were younger, but throughout your musical life?

Well, his music and everything about it is what I always go back to when I need to glean the wheat from the field. Because there’s always some lost wheat. The music that he started—and I say his but I also say, respectfully, that he did not do this by himself, and he would tell you the same thing right now. A lot of people would ask him, “So you started bluegrass music?” And he’d say, “Yes, sir.” That would be the only answer. He wouldn’t say, “Well, me and the band that I had at the time.” I’ve come to know as a musician that he did not do this singlehandedly. There was a great driving force—the Fab Five with Chubby Wise, and Howard Watts on the bass, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. That music birthed the Stanley Brothers; birthed Flatt and Scruggs; birthed the Osborne Brothers; birthed Jim and Jesse, and every other bluegrass band that came after that. That was the seed, that was the seed that fell into the ground and started producing much fruit—Bill Monroe and the sound that he heard in his head. I think when he heard Earl Scruggs play he said, “That’s a sound I can use.” That was the icing on the cake; I think they had everything else. There’s even a story about Lester saying, “Hey, let’s don’t hire another banjo player. I don’t want another String Bean in the band doing comedy.” When he heard Earl he said, “Hire him for whatever it costs.”

But I don’t know how I could extract the influence of Bill Monroe’s music from what I play today. It would be extremely shallow, given my music and what people know me for, if you extracted all of Bill Monroe’s influence out of my sound and my music. He is the one constant that I continue to go back to—it’s the foundation of what I stand on. In all the years I was in bluegrass it was either the fiddle or the mandolin that I was playing; when I went with Emmylou, what I took to her band was the knowledge of bluegrass. And you can go back and listen to when the change started to happen, when Ricky started playing with Emmylou her sound started to change, at least for two or three records. Roses In the Snow and her Christmas record, Light In the Stable, her music took a little detour from the norm of Emmylou music. I’m not saying it was because of me, but it was because of the influence coming from me that she felt she could do some different things and be able to play around and yet be safe, have some good music. It’s the foundation of everything I do. I mean, I love the Beatles, but I don’t go back and glean from their records, go back and say, “What did I miss back there?” I don’t do that. I love James Taylor, but I don’t do that with his music. I love Grappelli and Django Reinhardt—Grappelli was a tremendous influence in my fiddle playing back when I was with the Country Gentlemen, he and Vassar Clements. I go back and listen to Django and Stephane’s records, but that music doesn’t move me like going back and listening to “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky,” “It’s Mighty Dark to Travel,” “Why Did You Wander,” “Little Cabin Home On the Hill,” “Bluegrass Breakdown,” “Mother’s Only Sleeping,” “Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake.” That’s my lifeline, that sound and that music.

Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys, ‘Bluegrass Breakdown’: 'I think the music is living,' says Ricky Skaggs. 'Every time you hear it there's a little thing different.'

So even today, when you put on a Bill Monroe record, you hear something you hadn’t heard before? Is the music that rich for you?

Yes. I think the music is living. Not that it changes, but I think there’s something to it, that every time you hear it there’s a little thing different. One of the great things Columbia did do, sixty or seventy years after the original records came out, was to release these outtakes. [Ed. note: the 1992 two-CD box set, The Essential Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys featured 16 alternate takes among its 40 tracks.] That was honey to me. Oh, just to get to hear something I hadn’t heard before! Getting to hear a different lick or hear Lester sing lead a different way, put a different twist on a word. I don’t think anyone will ever do my music that way, go back and say, “Oh, if we could just get these live shows from Ricky!” There are things I find when I go back—sometimes I’ll listen to the banjo all the way through, I’ll just stick my ear right on the banjo and make sure I don’t let it stray away and hear Chubby or hear Lester sing. I’ll just try to listen to what Earl played. It’s crazy. You get into stuff like that, and you think it’s simple—it is absolutely not simple. Listening to some of Earl’s backup on some of these songs is just ridiculous—what was he playing? And Monroe was letting him do it! These guys were coloring so out of the lines—I mean bluegrass was like be-bop or jazz, hillbilly jazz. You compare what they were doing with Uncle Dave Macon or Gid Tanner, Riley Puckett and all those Tennessee string bands, [Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys] were light years—Beatles—ahead of them.

Bill Monroe’s Gibson F-5 mandolin

It was an amazing time, such a fresh spring that had been tapped into somehow, a fresh spring of mountain water that was so pure, so clean and Bill was singing so much softer in those days; he wasn’t having to scream out yet he was singing so high. There’s a live version of him doing “Blue Yodel #4” on the Opry and he goes for this note, and his voice cracks a little bit, and you can hear the band crack up and laugh, and the audience laughs a little bit too because I think Bill just made a joke out of it but it really happened to his voice, cracked for a second. Then the next time he goes for that note he goes to the stratosphere with his voice—there’s never been another voice on the Grand Ole Opry like Bill Monroe’s. You get a Bill Monroe maybe once in a century, once in a lifetime you may get a Bill Monroe. I really mean that. There have been artists and musicians in America that have really set a stake in the ground and plotted out their territory. I don’t know that Bill Monroe’s territory has been completely plotted out. I think he put a stake in the ground and said, “This is where I’m starting.” It’s growing—growing and growing and growing and growing. When you hear Alison Krauss with various other artists she works with; and you hear Nickel Creek; and you hear Chris Thile now with the Punch Brothers; Jerry Douglas and how his music is changing all the time. I talked to David Lindley, I got to see him out in California a couple of weeks ago when we played the Strawberry Music Festival together. We were talking about Bill Monroe and his eyes just rolled back in his head—he said, “That guy was amazing, hands-down.” We talked about his life and the movie that wasn’t made. We were both thinking how glad we were that the movie of Bill’s life wasn’t made. I told him, “They weren’t going to focus on the music. It was going to be about his womanizing and him being alone all the time and he had one relationship after another.” Kind of a fantasized movie about that just to get people to watch it. I don’t want young people to know about that; if they want to know about that they can read about it in the history books; his life was pretty much an open book, and a lot of books have been written about it. He was a human being, and I’m not agreeing with the lifestyle he lived. There were a lot of things about his life that were not good, but let’s go back to the music, to the things he achieved and set a standard for that others could build on. That’s what I want people to know about Bill Monroe.

Bill Monroe, ‘Mule Skinner Blues’: ‘There’s never been another voice on the Opry like Bill Monroe’s'

Various writers interviewed him over the years and invariably portrayed him as testy, a little contentious, kind of aloof. How was he with you, a fellow musician? Was he warm, forthcoming with ideas? How was he in private in your experience?

Well, he loved to pick at you. He would challenge you, kind of see how much you knew. I dared not go up to him so much when I was playing bluegrass, when I was with Ralph Stanley. Bill and Ralph were great friends. And if we came to Nashville and Bill was in town, he’d always buy us all lunch at Linebaugh’s meat-and-three downtown. He’d always be extremely nice to everybody. Ralph loved him, Carter Stanley and Pee Wee Lambert idolized him, and that was the sound that band had, that high trio thing. That’s another story in itself.

But anyway, I guess once I left Emmylou and moved to Nashville, got my record deal with Epic and started having some success, I would see Mr. Monroe at the Opry or at different place, and we became good friends. He was very complimentary—“You’re doing a good job, boy. You’re keeping bluegrass in your music”—and I was thrilled. He hears it! I’m not bastardized and sent away from the family! He’s happy with what I’m doing! Of course, Mr. Acuff, Minnie, Jimmie C. Newman, Hank Snow were the same way—they could hear my roots and saw the respect I had for the past while trying to bring something new into the process. So they all were very complimentary and helped me so much, gave me such courage. Bill and I grew to be great friends, and once I started to get a fan base I wanted to let those people know who Bill Monroe was, who my real hero was, because it would always come up in interviews. The first name out of my mouth would always be Bill Monroe. The English writers, when I’d go over there, would refer to me as “neo-traditionalist Ricky Skaggs.” I didn’t even know what neo-traditionalist meant; I had to look it up in the dictionary. They would refer to me and the roots of the music I grew up listening to in Kentucky, and I’d say, “Yeah, there’s a lot of Kentucky influence, but Bill Monroe was the cat that really had the stuff.” So when I started doing videos we did the “Country Boy” video and got Mr. Monroe into that. His face and his look and everything about Bill Monroe was in that video. He comes in my office and chews me out, and yet he pats me on the back at the end of the video and says, “Guess you’re still a country boy.” It really introduced him to a new audience. I think he knew that, so we were great friends. I’d even go over to his house, and he started inviting me over to his place. I’d take my mandolin and we’d set and play for three or four hours. We might say ten words in three hours, but we’d play thirty songs, old instrumentals and stuff like that—“here’s an old song I learned from Uncle Pen,” and I’m wondering if I’m the first one to hear this. It was great fun, it was a father-son-type relationship and master-and-student. I always felt like I was a student around him and was always learning. I remember one time I came into his dressing room and his mandolin was sitting in its case and he was on the couch. I don’t now, I was playing a lot of guitar in those days and hadn’t played the mandolin too much—maybe on one or two songs. So I said, “Can I see your old mandolin?” And he said, “Yeah, go ahead.” I picked it up and it was like picking up a body, a living person. I played around on it and it just felt so good, sounded so good, so I’d play a little bit more up and down the neck playing these little licks. I played for five or ten minutes and laid it back in its case, and he said, “Uh, did you find anywhere on that mandolin that it didn’t sound just great?” “No, sir, it sounded awesome everywhere.”

Bill Monroe has a featured role in Ricky Skaggs’s ‘Country Boy’ video, 1985: ‘Everything about Bill Monroe was in that video,’ Skaggs says.

It was a wonderful relationship we had. We were deep, deep friends. I remember him coming up to me one time at the Opry. It was just the two of us, and it was like everybody else was in another world but he and I. We were standing in a dark corner somewhere in life and in time, and he said, “Ricky, I’m really proud of you, boy. You’re really doing a good job. You’re a good husband and you’re a good daddy. You’re a fine musician. You really love bluegrass and you really love Kentucky”—that was important to him—“you’re a fine boy. The way you love God, you’re just a fine boy.” And I…no words, even from my real dad—and he affirmed me many times and was proud of me in many ways—but nobody in this whole world said those words to me and had them mean more to me than what he said that night. I don’t think we ever talked about what he said, because it was so personal. It’s like I wanted to hide that in my heart forever and never tell anybody. I think I told my wife Sharon and she said, “That is so big for him.” He wasn’t paying me a compliment to get something from me. It wasn’t like that at all. It was so heartfelt. I’d never seen him get so personal and sensitive, never saw that side of him. We went to church together, and it was great to hear him on the row behind me singing “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms,” or “A Victory in Jesus” or some of these hymns from his childhood.

He started to mellow out so much towards the end of his life. That’s what I was telling David Lindley. He started mending fences with relationships, repainting the barns where he had really hurt people, that kind of thing. David looked at me and said, “Man, that’s what they need to make the movie about!” And I said, “Exactly!” If you want to be true to the Bill Monroe story, you have to include that. He was calling people on the phone, wanting to see them, spend time with them. I think he knew that he didn’t want, he was tired of fighting that bitterness and divide between family members, friends, people he had worked with. He was always into mending fences, even on his farm, an old fence would get torn down and he’d want to fix it back, and I thought, He is doing the same thing in his heart. He wants to make those fences right, he really wants to get those relationships right before he goes home. He’s getting older and he really sees friends as the greatest asset he has, not necessarily even his music.

Ricky Skaggs and Bill Monroe cut loose on Monroe’s classic ‘Uncle Pen’ at the Grand Ole Opry

The last few times that I saw him when he was in a nursing home and couldn’t even talk back to me, I’d say to him, “Mr. Monroe, it’s okay. This music is going to be fine. Don’t worry about bluegrass; don’t worry about the music. We’re going to take care of it.” I didn’t say “I’m going to take care of it”—I never did that. I said “We”—meaning the bluegrass community—“are gonna take this on.” I’d come on in off the road and one of the first things I would do is go see Bill. I’d go over and see him, sometimes he’d be alert, sometimes he wasn’t. I’d take a mandolin and hand it to him and say, “Show me again how you played ‘Roanoke,’ there’s some things in there I just can’t get.” He’d fumble around, couldn’t hardly play, and I’d say, “Okay, that’s it. I got it now.” He’d look at me like, “You think I’m crazy. I know what you’re doing. You can play that.” We had a great time in my life. There’s nobody musically I respected more than him. He was a genius. He couldn’t explain to you what he did, couldn’t explain a lot of stuff about his music—I’m the same way. I don’t even read music. I couldn’t tell you looking at a piece of sheet music what that is. My kids, my youngest two kids can read music very well, they write music down and chart it out. I can read a chord chart, a numbers chart like we use in Tennessee a lot—a I-IV-V is a G-C-D, or whatever. I’ve learned enough to read that, and he was the same way. But boy, there was so much in him to come out.

After being introduced by Marty Stuart, Bill Monroe performs a solo version of ‘Wayfaring Stranger’


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