Pulling heart strings with his mandolin


The twangy strum of Ricky Skaggs mandolin aligns with his deep, clear-cut croon, arriving at a sound ingrown from his own creativity but influenced by some of the biggest names of bluegrass. 

He has crossed the traditional lines of bluegrass and country for years by teaming up with seemingly odd matches like the unpredictable Bruce Hornsby or rock virtuoso Jack White but his old-time soul always shines through. 

In anticipation of his consecutive shows at the Birchmere this Friday and Saturday night he spoke with the Times about his new album Solo: Songs My Dad Love, under-eating desperate housewives and playing with The Father of Bluegrass at the age of six among other things.

Alexandria Times: Youve played the Birchmere many times before and you have two shows booked for this weekend. Whats the draw for you?

Ricky Skaggs: Theres a great history there. Theres a great support base there for not just my style of music, but bluegrass in general. The Birchmere has really stretched out over the last 10 years from the way we used to remember it being being back in the 80s and even the 70s. Now theyve got blues acts and theyve got jazz acts and I think its great because I love variety, I love spreading it up a little bit, shootin it up a little bit, just giving folks a different taste of a lot of different kinds of music. Theres really not a bad seat in the house. It still feels small in a way but you know that when youre up there its much bigger than it used to be.

Your new album Solo: Songs My Dad Loved is your first solo album and on a subject close to home after your dad died in 1996. How did you come up with the tribute?

Its something I wanted to do to honor my dad. He loved all kinds of music but he really loved string music, mountain music, old time string bands. These songs that people are hearing are my renditions of the earliest memories of music that I had. All the songs on this record except for one were songs that he and I used to sing together.

The record is a tribute to your father who passed away, but its not necessarily gloomy, is it?

Its a really sweet record. There are fun things in it. He used to sing this song called I Had But 50 Cents. Its a great story: A guy taking his girlfriend out to dinner and so she eats everything on the menu and drinks everything at the bar and he has no money to pay for it. Nowadays, the valley girls or the Desperate Housewives, they would eat a salad and thatd be it, ya know? This ol gal was hungry. She had an app-e-tite. 

So your dad was one of your main influences musically?

He saw that I was drawn to music and so he bought me this mandolin and he heard me singing. Any good dad, I think, once they see a kid thats really drawn towards sports, or drawn toward art or photography or anything, I think that dad really wants to help his son grow up in that and support that. And I think as a musician he saw something in me that he wanted to pour into me. It was kind of a double call for my dad, not just as a dad, but as a musician.

Is it true that your first performance on stage was at the age of six with The Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe?

Yes. He was up playing in Martha, Kentucky. I had been playing the mandolin for about a year. So we were up seeing Mr. Monroe play one night and after about 20 minutes or so into his show, people started requesting that little Ricky Skaggs get up and sing. After a while I think Mr. Munroe was tired of it and asked me to come up. He said, What do you play there boy? And I said, I play the mandolin. So he took his mandolin off of his shoulder and just wrapped the strap around it so it would fit me and put it on me. So I stood there and played his mandolin and sung. That was my first time being on stage. 

Do you plan to stick to songs from your new album this weekend?

Its a great place to try out new songs and new stuff. Its a very forgiving audience. They love what you do and they dont mind that youre bringing something new that theyve never heard before, so I feel like we would go back and dig up some tunes I havent done in four or five years, and do those this weekend, some things they havent heard in a while or may not have heard at all.


Ricky Skaggs plays the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, on Friday, January 8 and Saturday, January 9. The Saturday show is sold out but tickets are still available for the Friday show.