Ricky Skaggs Talks Hillary Scott, Chris Stapleton, Tommy Emmanuel & Mel Tillis

Ricky Skaggs Talks Hillary Scott, Chris Stapleton, Tommy Emmanuel & Mel Tillis

15 time GRAMMY winner, Ricky Skaggs, has had a huge influence on so many types of music including country, bluegrass, gospel and even Contemporary Christian, with his 15th GRAMMY win in this category, just since my last interview with him just over a year ago. As a singer, musician and producer [just to name a few of his many talents], Ricky Skaggs is a force to be reckoned with in the music industry. In this interview, Ricky Skaggs talks to us about working with Hillary Scott, his thoughts on artists like Chris Stapleton and Tommy Emmanuel and the upcoming Mel Tillis Memorial where he will be performing a tribute.

Ricky Skaggs Talks Hillary Scott, Chris Stapleton, Tommy Emmanuel & Mel Tillis

Ricky Skaggs Talks Hillary Scott, Chris Stapleton, Tommy Emmanuel & Mel Tillis

Eat Play Rock: How’s the weather your way?

Ricky Skaggs: We’ve just got a lot of fog and a kind of light, misty rain. It’s been really cold here. And the last couple of weeks we’ve had below freezing temperatures and much of the wind chill has been down below zero at times. We’ve kind of caught a little warmer spell so I think all of the snow went way north of here. So we are in pretty good shape here in Nashville.

Eat Play Rock: Yeah, I think so, too. We had like maybe a little bit of ice on the roads this morning but not much. And it is a bit warmer today. So at least we are lucky in that way.

Ricky Skaggs: Yeah, there’s nothing worse than having to get up and drive around with ice because chains don’t help either.

Eat Play Rock: Do you have to leave the house anytime soon or do you get to hang out there a few days?

Ricky Skaggs: We are in for a while. The 20th is our first date to go out and work. We are doing the Opry again this weekend and so we are just kind of taking it easy. Sometimes when you are working and such, your default setting is to just do what you did last night and you’re not really thinking that much about something new or just a different idea. I think in these down times of quietness, you can kind of hear some things that the normal noise of the day doesn’t allow you to hear in the business.

Eat Play Rock: Since I last spoke to you a little over a year ago, you’ve won another GRAMMY. So, do you want to tell us about that and what it was like working with Hillary Scott.

Ricky Skaggs: It was a joy. It really was. I love Lang [Scott] and Linda [Davis] and I have known them for years. Of course Hillary was a little girl, kind of when I met them. But she has grown up to be a very strong woman and a very powerful singer and creator, a songwriter. I mean, she’s amazing and such a fine, Christian woman. Her and Chris, her husband, are expecting twins to go along with their already 4 year old. I think she’s 4.

So, honestly, the first meeting we had, I just kept laying it down because I was on tour with The Whites and I just didn’t think I had the time to really devote to a record that big. I felt like it was going to be a big undertaking. And it was. It was a very, kind of, watched over record. It was a major label so I wanted to make sure that I was up for it and that I could devote the time that the record deserved and the time that I knew the label would want me to give. But I just kept praying about it and praying about it and I never really got a “No.” You know, it was like, “Whatever you want to do.” And I was like, “I wish you would just tell me no, Lord.” It’s like, give me an answer. [we both laugh] And so, I just didn’t get that.

So, Lang had called me and he said, “Ricky, we really would love for you to do this record. You’re our number one pick of anybody. I mean we just can’t think of doing this record without you. You know, we would love to do it in your studio out there in Hendersonville.” And I started telling him all I was doing and everything and he said, “I know.”

So, anyway, I told him I would let him know by a certain time if I could do it or not. Hillary called me maybe a week after that and she said, “Mr. Ricky, every time we pray about who’s supposed to produce this record, your name is who we get from the Lord.” I wish he would just tell me, you know. But I knew at that point. I really felt like I did hear the Lord say, “I know you can’t do this. You don’t have the time. But I do. I can make everything work out.” And he really, really did. I mean he made the times work out when I was available, when Hillary was home from touring with Lady A. I mean, there were hardly any discrepancies in our schedules. It was amazing. And we just went into it with blind faith, in a way, that we just do it.

When Lang was talking to me about it at first I think there was a certain amount of time that we would like to get it done. Well, when I talked to Hillary, she said, “You know, I’m not in a hurry to get this record done. I want to do it right. I want to do it with you. I want you to be involved in it. And I want to take the time that it takes Whatever that is, whatever that looks like. I just want to take the time. That way we won’t feel any pressure. It will be organic and that’s how it’s going to happen.” So I said, “Ok, the pressure is off. Count me in.”

So, from day one, we prayed over this record and asked God to give us the right songs to do, the right musicians to play them, that had the heart for the music. The whole process was bathed in prayer and it was dedicated. We just dedicated it to the Lord and the Kingdom and just felt like God was really going to use it. Especially when I started hearing these songs that they were bringing in I said, “I can hear that song being a hit record,” and we started the record and it was magic. It happened so easy and I told people, “This is the easiest record I ever produced. I just kind of put my feet up on the console, kicked back and said, ‘Ok, ya’ll go after it, you know.'” It wasn’t quite that easy but it was relaxed. It never got weird. It was just so right.

Ricky Skaggs Talks Hillary Scott, Chris Stapleton, Tommy Emmanuel & Mel Tillis

On the first tracking day, all of the musicians were there and everything, and Hillary said, “We’ve got something for you,” and so they had this little box all wrapped up, with pretty paper, almost like a birthday box or something. So, I open it up and it’s a referee’s t-shirt, a black and white striped shirt. And then another little package inside that had a whistle, to call foul or time out. And I wore the tee shirt one time just to get pictures. I never had to wear it again and I only blew the whistle one time. It was getting really loud in the control room and I was trying to listen to a playback and someone’s overdubs. I’ve got a big control room and it’s bigger than most studios are. It’s kind of a nice thing when you can bring everybody in and let them listen. But it’s almost like a double edged sword, too, because you can have too many people in there and they are not being quiet, they are talking. And you are trying to listen.

But it was a great project and I was so proud of it. It actually won two GRAMMYS. It won a GRAMMY for “Thy Will” for single and that goes to the artist and songwriter. And then of course the album won for Gospel Album of the Year. We were very thankful and very happy and I wanted to go up there with them but I just couldn’t. But it was a great thing to see it come in on a text, “We won!”

Eat Play Rock: That’s great! So, you have won so many GRAMMYS at this point, where do you keep them?

Ricky Skaggs: Well, a friend of mine had kept one in his car for a long time. I’ve never kept one in my car and I think he did because he had lost it and didn’t know where it was and it was under a bunch of pizza boxes or something in his car. But I usually keep them at my studio. I’ve got an office here in Hendersonville, my business office for Skaggs Family Records and my studios pass right through the same building so I usually keep them over there. We have a trophy shelf over there. I bought this building from The Oak Ridge Boys and then spent quite a bit of money renovating it and building the studio up and all that. So, there was already a trophy shelf in there from the days of The Oak Ridge Boys and they took theirs with them when they left and I just stuck mine in when I got there.

Eat Play Rock: Well, that’s convenient. When we spoke last, you talked about how you were pretty impressed with Chris Stapleton. He’s done a lot since then. Are you still feeling excited about his music?

Ricky Skaggs: Yeah, I sure am. The thing I like about Chris is that he’s like a square peg. You can’t fit him into Nashville. You can’t fit him into Chicago, LA, New York. You can’t fit him into any place. He’s not 100% country. He’s not 100% rock. He’s not 100% pop. He’s not 100% anything. But he’s 100% great and he’s 100% Chris Stapleton and that’s the thing I like about him. You know, God made him to be Chris Stapleton. He didn’t make him to be somebody else. And I think Chris loves and admires and appreciates his roots in Kentucky and country music, traditional country, bluegrass, gospel, blues, I mean, he loves all of that. I think when he’s out playing, all of those sounds and all of that comes out. He embraces it all and he just does the music that he likes and he’s a great writer, too, so he has a lot of great songs to sing.

Eat Play Rock: So you are going to be at the Mel Tillis Public Memorial on the 31st. Can you tell us more about that?

Ricky Skaggs: Yeah. I was talking with Pam [Tillis], Mel’s daughter, and she was trying to get artist’s that had recorded her dad’s songs over the years. And, of course, “Honey, Open That Door,” was a major, major, huge record for me in the 80s. So I was more than honored to be asked and I told her that I would certainly be glad to do it. And we are going to use the Statesiders, Mel’s band, so it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m really looking forward to getting to do it. It’s going to be at 10 o’clock in the morning so it’s like a memorial. It’s not like a celebration, you know, or a tribute or something like that, that you would do at night. I don’t know if it’s going to be a religious kind of experience but I know it will be treated as a memorial to honor her dad. I loved Mel. He was always kind to me, even when I first came here to Nashville. Him and Buddy Cannon were two people that I met. And, of course, Buddy’s still a great friend and I’ve known him for years. But anyway, [Mel’s] in a better place. I look forward to getting to do the tribute or the memorial. I’ll be anxious to get to see who all shows up and gets to do a song of Mel’s.

Eat Play Rock: Do you have any more shows planned with Bruce Hornsby? What else do you have in the works right now?

Ricky Skaggs: I think we are going to do some more live dates this year. We are looking at doing some live shows. There’s some talk, I don’t know how realistic it’s going to be, but there is some talk about me and Tommy Emmanuel doing some shows together. And that could be amazing fun. So we may try to do a few shows of that. That would be great. He’s one of the greatest guitar players in the whole, wide world. I think he was born with a guitar in his hand. That was painful, I’m sure, but he’s amazing. He is stunningly amazing. He’s just great and he’s a great guy. I love making music with him.

Chet Atkins introduced me to Tommy back in the 80s when I was playing country music. Tommy came to town to see Chet. He was always a Chet Atkins fan. He was born and raised in Australia, so he would fly over here and stay with Chet or see him at least. So Chet brought him to the Opry one night and introduced me to him. “This is someone you need to know. This is Tommy Emmanuel,” and he took my hand and put my hand in Tommy’s hand and said, “Now, you guys need to know each other. You need to make music.” We’ve been friends but we’ve never really got to make that much music together. He’s done a few shows where he’s opened for Kentucky Thunder and myself and we’ve had him come out and play the Opry with us. Now he goes out there and just does stuff by himself. He is just phenomenal. He is known really as a solo act because that’s all he needs. He doesn’t need anybody messing him up. All he needs to do is plug in and play. He’s just stupid good and so entertaining. So, I hope we get to work some together.

Ricky Skaggs Talks Hillary Scott, Chris Stapleton, Tommy Emmanuel & Mel Tillis

As far as projects, there are a lot of live shows that me and Kentucky Thunder have been recording over the last 3 or 4 years. I’d love to try to sit down and go through those and put out maybe a live record. We haven’t done a live record since the Charleston Music Hall record sometime in the 90s. So, I would love to put another live record out. The best way to hear this band is live and I love playing The Harvester. It’s a really cool place to play. So, I am looking forward to getting back there and playing again in Rocky Mount.

Eat Play Rock: I am looking forward to seeing you at The Harvester. I’ve seen you before but this will be a new venue for me so I am really looking forward to that. Anything else cool going on right now?

Ricky Skaggs: Well, we are taking our Christmas tree down today. We took the lights off of it last night and kind of getting that all boxed back up and getting back to the real world, not the world of Christmas and New Year’s and Thanksgiving and all that.

Eat Play Rock: I thought about asking you how your Christmas was, but I was worried it might be too late for that.

Ricky Skaggs: It was great and we just kind of kept celebrating, as you can tell, up into, well, the 2nd week of January before we are getting our Christmas tree down. It was so pretty this year. It was just so beautiful. So we just kind of kicked around, “Well, maybe tomorrow,” so anyway, I told Sharon, “Whenever you want to take the Christmas tree down, I’ll help you. Let’s talk about it when I get home. Ok. Fine.” Anyway, we took all of the decorations off last night. I just gotta get it all apart and put it in the box and all that.

Eat Play Rock: There are a lot of people around here who still have their Christmas decorations up. I guess maybe people were feeling a little more Christmas-y this year.

Ricky Skaggs: I think it’s probably because of the cold and some snow and some colder weather and stuff like that. I think it kind of kept us in a little more of a winter, you know, Christmas-y type mood. Even though they are not playing the records on the radio, we’re still kind of in a mood of celebrating and rejoicing. Anyway, that’s kind of how I felt.

See Ricky Skaggs locally at the Harvester Performance Center in Rocky Mount, Va, on January 25th at 8pm and check out the rest of his tour schedule here.

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About Dawn McAlexander

Dawn has been a music lover her entire life. She went to college in Boone, NC, an area that is rich in music and culture. She also worked as a radio deejay for 8 years and grew up in Southeastern, Va, a melting pot of different musical styles and traditions. She has been to more concerts than she can count in every genre you can imagine. She resides in North Carolina with her furbabies and her massive collection of Disney memorabilia.

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