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December 16, 2010   Email to Friend 

STRIKING A CHORD: Skaggs Sings Farmers' Praises At Mobile Concert
By Darryal Ray

Skaggs praised farmers during Dec. 5 concert at Saenger Theatre.
The sight of that old milk cow staring back at him through the crack of the barn was just too tempting for little Ricky Skaggs, armed with a water gun and all the mischievousness of a 7-year -old boy.

"I was on the outside of the stall, and I looked through a crack in the barn where this old cow was eating out of the feed trough," Skaggs recalls. "The cow heard me out there and kind of looked through the crack and saw me. I saw this great big ol' eyeball and I thought, 'Man, what a good target!' So I took my squirt gun and shot that cow right in the eye. That cow wheeled around, and kicked my mother over, turned over the milk and got mud and everything else all over Mom. I'm telling you what, boy, she wore me out! And I needed it. I should've had it! That should've been the end of Ricky Skaggs right there."

But since there's no use crying over spilled milk, Dorothy May Skaggs took mercy on her son that day. It's a good thing, too, because little Ricky grew into a man who not only became a Grammy Award-winning musician, but also one who sings the praises of farmers.

"God bless you farmers because we need you!" Skaggs told the audience at a concert at Mobile's Saenger Theatre on opening night of the 89th Annual Meeting of the Alabama Farmers Federation.

Throughout the Dec. 5 performance, Skaggs clearly struck a chord with his audience as he played old favorites like Bill Monroe's "Uncle Pen," "Cajun Moon" and "Highway 40 Blues." He also introduced them to songs from "Mosaic," his newest album that -- like Skaggs -- speaks unashamedly of his Christian faith but is very much unlike Skaggs in its musical style.

"It's always good to hear what folks like NPR, Wall Street Journal and New York Times have to say about stuff like a gospel record -- oops! 'The 'J' word (Jesus) is in there!'" Skaggs told the audience.

While it's certainly not the first time that Skaggs' evangelistic bent has surfaced in his career, it is his first "sacred" album. It's also one of the main reasons he established Skaggs Family Records, and why he believes bluegrass and farmers share such a strong connection. In a backstage interview with Neighbors magazine after the concert, Skaggs talked about his faith, his music and growing up on the family farm in Kentucky -- all of which have figured in a musical career that spans 50 years and includes 14 Grammy Awards.

Skaggs' musical career began when his father, a welder and part-time farmer who loved playing guitar and singing gospel songs, returned home from Ohio with a mandolin for his 5-year-old son. Hobert Skaggs had to return to Ohio before he could show Ricky how to play, but within two weeks, Ricky had it figured it out himself. That same year, he was taken on stage during one of Bill Monroe's concerts and played "Ruby" on Monroe's mandolin. Two years later, at the ripe age of 7, he played mandolin on the Flatt and Scruggs' television show. (Watch it online here.)

"Bluegrass is earthy. It's rootsy. It connects to people's innards and their heart -- their spirit. I think this music was birthed out of the spirit, and I think it connects to the human soul. I know city people like this music, too, but it doesn't connect to them like it does good ol' down-home people. They love the music because it talks about them, it talks about their way of life, it talks about their belief system, and things they can buy into and believe in," Skaggs says. "A lot of these gospel songs that we do have a lot of hope in them, and farmers always believe in hope. Hope is allwe have. As a Christian, we know Christ IS our hope. It's not like 'I hope so' - it's a knowing hope.

"But you're right, this music does connect with farmers," he added. "You could hear it tonight. And when we play small towns like ... for instance, last night we played Corsicana, Texas which is in the middle of nowhere. People would come in with dirty boots and hat like they just got in off the farm and brought their honey to the show. They sat there and loved it. It was wonderful ... I'd rather play for those kind of people than to play for kings and presidents, and I've played for presidents, but nobody appreciates it like farmers."

Skaggs says the farm he grew up on back near Cordell, Ky., wasn't a big one, but it was large enough to teach many life lessons whether it was hoeing corn, gathering eggs or feeding chickens.

"My Dad raised potatoes, beans, watermelons, cucumbers, walnuts, cabbage, sweet potatoes," he said. "We grew everything, and my mother canned and put up stuff. And of course, we had an apple orchard and pear orchard and peaches. So we were very reliant on the Earth and the ground, and being able to raise a good garden. My Dad gave a lot of stuff away to people, especially older couples that couldn't much raise stuff anymore. My Dad was great about that. He always loved being able to bless people, and give them meat."

"It was a great way to grow up, having chores to do and being responsible for something," he added. "And seeing your hands create something. When you planted something, you saw it grow and come into maturity, and you could eat the labor of your hands, which was great! Nothing tastes better than corn that you've actually hoed and brought in, and mother cut that off the cob, scraped it, and made that fried corn."

Even today, Skaggs and his wife Sharon, part of the family group The Whites (along with her sister Cheryl and father Buck), are considering raising some of their own food on their 15-acre northern Tennessee estate -- if they can keep the deer away long enough.

"We've got a great place where we live, and we've got fruit trees out there -- some apple trees and pear trees. The peaches blew down, so I've got to get Stark Brothers to send me some trees -- I still get my Stark Brothers Catalog like my Dad used to do," he said wistfully. "There's nothing that can take the place of people's hands," he added. "People have to plant the stuff, people have to hoe it, and people have to care for it. We need vegetables, we need fruit, we need rice, we need beans, we need corn -- those are staples. So many other things come from those things, and if we don't raise that stuff and become dependent on foreigners to raise it for us, my goodness, we're in trouble! We've seen the American farmer lose everything; lose farms that have been in the family 200 years. It's so sad! If anybody should get a hand, a help and a lift-up, it should be the farmers."

To learn more about Skaggs, visit rickyskaggs.com or skaggsfamilyrecords.com. Skaggs' "Mosaic" and "Songs My Dad Loved" recently received three nominations for the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards: Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album, "Mosaic"; Best Traditional Folk Album, "Songs My Dad Loved," and Best Gospel Song, "Return To Sender," writer Gordon Kennedy, "Mosaic." The Grammys will be broadcast live on CBS on Feb. 13, 7 p.m. CST.

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