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Skaggs Family Records

All in the family

Entertainment | Collaboration, most recently with also-great Bruce Hornsby, is a lesson Grammy nominee Ricky Skaggs learned the long way

Issue: "The other campaign," Feb. 9, 2008

Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby just might give bipartisanship a good name.

In 1986 Skaggs and Hornsby were among the hottest names in country and pop music, respectively. Skaggs had placed five albums and 13 singles in the country top 10, and Hornsby had just hit No. 1 with his debut album The Way It Is and its chart-topping title cut. Skaggs has since become one of the most prolific and acclaimed bluegrass bandleaders in the world, an enthusiastic performer of gospel music, and a favorite among red-state Republicans. His latest album, Salt of the Earth, is nominated for "Best Southern, Country, or Bluegrass Gospel Album" at this year's Feb. 10 Grammy Awards. Hornsby has performed with the Grateful Dead, recorded everything from classical to jazz, and campaigned for John Kerry.

In short, the two would seem to have little other than musical talent in common.

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Beginning with "Darling Corey," however, the Bill Monroe song on which the two collaborated on Skaggs' 2002 album Ricky Skaggs and Friends Sing the Songs of Bill Monroe, their paths have repeatedly crossed. Last March, they released Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby (Legacy), which featured inventive arrangements of bluegrass standards and Hornsby originals such as "Mandolin Rain" and "Crown of Jewels." The album was a hit, giving rise to a series of Skaggs-Hornsby concerts.

"We're still getting offers," says Skaggs, "and some of the best stuff [in the shows] wasn't even on the record. We play [Hornsby's] 'The Way It Is,' which is an absolutely wonderful bluegrass tune, 'The End of the Innocence,' and 'The Valley Road.' And hearing Bruce play [piano] on some of the instrumentals that I've written has been great."

Despite long hours of rehearsals and performances, the sharp contrast in their worldviews, according to Skaggs, has not proved an obstacle.

"We've gotten into some discussions about political issues, the war a bit, and the truth of God's Word-what I believe is the truth and what's doubtful to the naysayers who may think it's just a book. But it was always very respectful on both ends. I think I understand Bruce's heart and his position, and he certainly knows mine. We just never let it become any kind of issue."

What almost became an issue was Hornsby's request that they record a version of Rick James' notoriously lascivious R&B hit "Super Freak." Skaggs eventually saw the humor in performing the song as a breakneck-paced bluegrass number, and, in the end, the recording not only ended up on their album but also became its most talked-about song.

"Every time we'd see each other," says Skaggs, "Bruce would go into this falsetto voice, kind of a Prince imitation, and start singing 'Super Freak.' And I thought he was joking for the longest time. But one day he said, 'OK, boys, let's cut "The Freak" today.' And we all looked at each other like 'He's serious! He really does want to cut this!' So we worked it up and had a big laugh."

Laughter notwithstanding, the decision to accede to Hornsby's request, like every other career decision that Skaggs has made since founding Skaggs Family Records in 1997, was motivated by a seriousness of intent.

"It was his album too," says Skaggs, "not just mine. So I was willing to make a concession and do it for the love of my friend. I was not going to let it come between his and my relationship."

Relationships are increasingly important to Skaggs. In 1982 at the age of 28, after a first marriage that ended in divorce ("We didn't go to church," he admits, "or really seek God's guidance on getting married"), Skaggs married a devout Christian, Sharon White, of the country-music family group The Whites, bringing a stability that enabled him to withstand the temptations that come with the potentially overwhelming success he had just begun to achieve.

Ironically, it was also that relationship that ultimately led to Skaggs' being put out to pasture by his label at the time, Epic Records.

"In 1987, Sharon and I won the [Country Music Association] Duo of the Year award with 'Love Can't Ever Get Better Than This,' and we wanted to do a duet album to come out right after that. What better time to do a Ricky Skaggs-Sharon White duet record, a record by a couple that's totally in love with each other? But, boy, [Epic] was against it. They didn't want to promote marriage. They wanted to promote the sexual image that I portrayed as a solo male in country music."

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