Monday, September 16, 2013

"Kentucky Traveler" by Ricky Skaggs (2013)

I was hesitant to read this book at first. It is a faith based memoir, and I am somewhat suspect of those who wear their religion like a badge. But, Mr. Skaggs has done the seemingly impossible; he has managed to convey his Christian roots and the journey which brought him to international fame without being overly judgmental of others. He is firm in his beliefs; and lets the reader know it; but to separate the religion from the music would be to tell only a part of his story. And, in the case of Mr. Skaggs;  the man, the faith, and the music are all the same.

Beginning with his childhood Mr. Skaggs weaves a wonderful story of growing up as a Christian in the 1950’s and ‘60’s while pursuing his love of music. His father and mother were the main influences in his spiritual and musical development, with the elder Mr. Skaggs playing guitar himself. Young Ricky first performs on the top of the soft drink case at a local store. He was 5 years old at the time.  He was a true “child prodigy.” His instrument of choice was the mandolin, but his talent would lead him to the guitar, banjo and even the sitar for a brief moment in India.

His father’s love of music fueled Mr. Skaggs interest, and desire, to play the music he heard all around him while growing up. His father and mother were both musically inclined, with his mother singing with a strong clear mountain voice and even kicking up her feet and dancing at the frequent house parties they had on weekends. These occasions are the seeds of that would grow into a lifelong love of bluegrass music for Mr. Skaggs, taking him far away from his home, but always returning.

If you love traditional old time bluegrass music, then this book is a veritable history of the genre, beginning; as it should; with Bill Monroe. Ricky meets him as a kid and then later on as a teen when his Dad gets him behind stage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. But Ralph and Carter Stanley are the two men who most gave him his first big break.

As his career rises he finds himself at a sort of crossroads; he can go the way of so many before him in the music business, or he can remain true to his roots; both musically as well as spiritually. This is easier said than done, and the author admits it.

Crammed full of stories about the great legends he has known, and the spiritual path he has chosen for himself, make this book a very worthwhile read. His relationship with the late Keith Whitley is a bittersweet memory, as Mr. Whitley succumbs to the temptations of the road and heavy drink.

The story of the people he has played with is also the story of the salvation of the original sound of the bluegrass music he loved so well as a kid, but which had slipped away by the 1970’s, replaced by the overproduced “Nashville Sound.” Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, and so many others, along with Mr. Skaggs, have helped to not only preserve that sound, but to make it popular once again.

This remarkable family oriented, faith based memoir, is living testament of the roots of bluegrass music and the magic of where it comes from. It is also proof that you don’t necessarily need sex and drugs to make really great, timeless music.

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