It’s difficult to imagine a more poignant moment than when Ricky Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder played a moving rendition of “You Can’t Shake Jesus,” at the recent FloydFest in southern Virginia.
Although the 15,000-plus fans that packed each of the four days of the festival heard from a top-flight roster of artists including Emmylou Harris, Brandi Carlile, the Punch Brothers, Jackson Browne, and others, it was Skaggs’ virtuoso playing and heartfelt vocals that enticed concertgoers to stand in the searing sun and cheer, even as FloydFest wound down. Although Skaggs also teamed up with Bruce Hornsby for some power-packed songs, it’s difficult to imagine anything more lovely than the set Skaggs and his band played before meeting and greeting fans.
“It’s the most unusual gospel record I’ve ever done,” Skaggs told the crowd about Mosaic, the album from which “You Can’t Shake Jesus” was taken. “It’s not bluegrass and it’s not country, but you’ll like it. It’s good.”
Anyone wanting to sum up Skaggs’ career and appeal could likely turn to that line for reference. After making a name for himself as a major country star, he moved to bluegrass and even dabbled in other formats with special interest in gospel and Christian-themed songs. The result included 24 singles on Billboard’s Top 20, including 12 at #1 and an array of awards and honors, including 14 GRAMMY Awards, eight CMA Awards (including Entertainer of the Year), eight ACM Awards, two Dove Awards and nine ICM (Inspirational Country Music) Awards.
What’s perhaps most striking about Skaggs, though, is his modesty. Although Baby Boomers may be tempted to compare their own accomplishments with those of the 58-year old Skaggs and come up sorely lacking, you won’t find Skaggs preening. The Grand Ole Opry icon (he was the youngest ever inductee when he was added in 1982) warmly greeted others and showered them with praise, preferring to turn the spotlight on them. He’s even a bit reticent to talk about his most recent award, induction into the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Although almost every album Skaggs has released has included at least one gospel, Christian, or inspirational country song, he said he was taken aback by the honor.
“It is wonderful, but it is wild,” said Skaggs just prior to the Aug. 14 induction, noting that though he has never shied away from Christian or gospel music, he considers himself an artist who is Christian, not a Christian artist. “It was very unexpected and I’m very grateful for this honor.”
In a way, the award returns Skaggs to his earliest roots when, as a toddler, he and his mother sang Christian and gospel songs. Like fellow inductee Aretha Franklin, Skaggs’ first introduction to music was gospel.
“When I think of my early years with Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, I think of the divine intervention that has guided me every step of the way,” said Skaggs, who is writing an autobiography. “God has opened doors all along the way.”
And Skaggs has helped open a few doors, too. He recently introduced pop singer and songwriter Barry Gibb to the Grand Ole Opry where the two, who have also collaborated on an original song, performed “When the Roses Bloom Again,” plus Gibb’s hits “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” and “To Love Somebody.”
“He was so humble,” said Skaggs of the Australian-raised Gibb’s awe at performing at the country music mecca. “He said ‘Oh my God, I have dreamed of playing at the Grand Ole Opry. When I was 12, I used to see it on our black-and-white TV. I wanted Marty Robbins, Ernest Tubbs, and I wanted so badly to do that.”
Just another poignant moment made possible by Ricky Skaggs.
Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder will release their next bluegrass studio album, Music to My Ears, next month. For more information on music and performances, check Ricky Skaggs’ official website.
Watch Ricky Skaggs and Barry Gibb sing “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” at the Grand Ole Opry:
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