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.
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."
Epic was equally cool to Skaggs' desire to record gospel music.
"They thought that if I did a gospel record I was going to self-destruct and turn all my fans against me. And that's cool. I don't have any bitterness towards them. They were only protecting what they thought they had to protect, and I think they were even trying to protect me. But I think once they saw my heart and what I was truly about, they didn't really want to get behind and promote me. So from '86 until I was off the label [in '91], they pretty much washed their hands of me."
Skaggs found a more hospitable home at Atlantic Records, for whom he recorded Solid Ground (1995) and Life Is a Journey (1997), the latter of which included both pro-marriage songs (Mark Collie and Larry Cordell's "Let's Put Love Back to Work," Dallas Frazier's "Ain't Love a Good Thing") and gospel (Leon Payne's "The Selfishness in Man," Bill Dean and Richard Leigh's "Voices Singing"). But by then the country-music spotlight had shifted to Garth Brooks and a succession of now barely remembered "hat acts," and Skaggs' Atlantic albums, their high quality notwithstanding, did not sell.
It was then, according to his "Mission Statement" at the Skaggs Family Records website, that Skaggs decided to take matters into his own hands. "A few years ago," he writes, "I was a country music artist on a secular record label. I had been sensing that the Lord was saying to me, 'I want you to be where hurting people are, to be where people need to hear of My love.'. . . It was at this point we decided to start our own family record company. We dedicated everything we did to the Lord-we wanted to give Him all the honor and glory."
The decision led to the downsizing of Skaggs' touring operation and gave him and his band, Kentucky Thunder, the chance to "go off the beaten path."
"We can go to the high schools," he writes. "We can go to hospitals or to churches. We go anywhere that God wants to send us. Sometimes He uses us to sow seeds at a country fair or even at a casino. Some Christians may be embarrassed to be seen in a casino, but many people there need to hear the Word of God."
With a laugh, Skaggs told WORLD: "Sometimes I just throw the bomb of truth from the stage and then leave. We don't evangelize the way that Franklin Graham or Billy Graham do. We don't ask people to come forward and to get saved. But I do believe in the born-again experience. I believe that music can draw people close to God, to a place where they want to receive Him as their Lord. And I know that there've been times in my shows that God's presence has been so strong and so recognizable in the music that there's no way the audience, no matter how hard their hearts could've been or how drunk they might've been, couldn't have known they were in the presence of something holy."