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Interview: Ricky Skaggs Talks Paperback Release of Memoir, ‘Kentucky Traveler’

Ricky Skaggs
Michael Buckner, Getty Images

Ricky Skaggs‘ autobiography, ‘Kentucky Traveler,’ is quite simply one of the best musical memoirs of its type in recent memory.

The book is like several stories in one. On one level, it’s obviously the story of Skaggs’ life, which would have been more than interesting enough all by itself, given that the 14-time Grammy winner has had one of the longest and most illustrious careers of any musician of his generation.

He’s also displayed an uncanny knack for landing in the middle of events that include people with names like Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and many more.

‘Kentucky Traveler’ not only shares numerous personal stories and insights into some of the most important figures in the history of country music, it reads like a living history of the genre, tying together the early origins of bluegrass, the mainstream music business that sprang up to commercialize country music and Skaggs’ unique place in that history as a musical pilgrim who has traveled through both of them and back again.

‘Kentucky Traveler’ was recently released for the first time in paperback, and The Boot caught up with Skaggs to discuss his remarkable life and career in the following interview.

I really, really enjoyed your book — in fact, I read it twice, straight through. It’s one of the best books of its kind I’ve read in a long while.

Well, thank you very much. That’s really great to hear. I know you get a chance to read a lot of stuff at The Boot, so that’s really a great testimony. I appreciate it.

Was it always your plan to eventually put your life down on paper?

[Laughs.] No, it was never a plan! I never, ever thought that I would ever write a book. I mean, me and books never got along well when I was a kid in school. My history book one time — I had a flintlock rifle, an old black powder rifle, you know, and I remember one morning standing on the porch, I was waiting for the bus to come, and I took my history book and set it way up there in the road, just to see if I could hit it with this flintlock. So I cock it back, take good aim, you know, and shoot a hole in the book. It didn’t go all the way through it, ’cause the book was pretty thick, but it just tore my book up so bad! And it was so ridiculous that I did that. I would’ve probably wore my kids out if they did that with their books.

"I never, ever thought that I would ever write a book. I mean, me and books never got along well when I was a kid in school."

But I just didn’t take school very seriously. I really wish that I had’ve. I wish I was better in English, I wish I was better in Literature, I wish I was better at math. History — I love history now, I really do. I found something that I really love, and I just love the past. I love old church history, like revival history in Kentucky. It’s been a big thing to me to study American history. Just knowing that my family has been in Virginia and Kentucky and North Carolina all these years is a pretty amazing thing. So I love history but never, ever thought I would do a book.

How did it come about?

I was offered an opportunity to do an autobiography about 10, 12 years ago, and I was so busy at the time. I had artists on my label at the time, and I was co-producing with them, so I was in the studio a lot, and I was on the road a lot, and I didn’t have a lot of time at home, and I sure didn’t want my time at home to be filled with working on a book, especially when I had young kids at home.

But I guess it was about five years ago, HarperCollins came to me and offered me a deal to do a book and really gave me the budget and the time that I could do it and not have to feel that I was rushing through it. I was able to find a co-writer [Eddie Dean] that helped me a lot. He’d written Ralph Stanley’s book — co-wrote it with Ralph — and when I read Ralph’s book, it was just like Ralph sitting there talking to me. That’s what I wanted so much, was someone that would help me get my voice, my rhythm, my sound, my talking style on the pages.

And at first, it wasn’t working. It really wasn’t. I mean, when he would send me back what he’d written down of what I had said on tape, or on a little digital recorder or whatever we were using, it wasn’t what I’d said. It wasn’t the way I’d said it. I don’t sound like someone that graduated from Princeton. I’m never gonna talk like that. I talk mountainese. I talk like Kentucky, and like it or not, that’s who I am, and that’s who the fans have grown up knowing who I was and would expect to hear that from me.

Once we started making those adjustments, the book started taking a form and shape and started taking on a personality. And I’m sure that as you read the book, it did sound like me talking.

Absolutely. That’s one of the strengths of it — it’s like getting to sit down and have you tell a bunch of stories. I knew, of course, that you’ve had a long career, but I did not realize just how many legendary people you’ve crossed paths with. With so much to draw from, how did you decide what to leave in and what to leave out? You could have written 10 books this size.

Well, there is a lot of stuff still around. I mean, we sent them I don’t know how many chapters that the editors went through and just felt like the stuff they edited was the best stuff for the book. It was the choice meat, you know, so I had to trust them on that. I don’t really remember what was left out. That’s what’s so weird. Eddie Dean might remember; him being the co-writer, he probably has it written down, all the stuff that was left out.

But it’s really complete the way it is, I feel like, and I was happy with it. One thing I keep saying to myself that I’d like to do, I’d love to release an audio version. I think people would really love to have it in their car on a long trip, where they could just sit and listen to this story, and maybe even intertwine some music.

When I’m talking about a certain song, maybe put some music — when I’m talking about Bill Monroe singing ‘Uncle Pen,’ have a little bit of that in there, you know, or something to where it’s interesting. It’s a little more than what the reader got when he was reading the book. And even go off script if I want to and expand on a story or something like that, or tell a joke or something that may have got cut out.

"I think I’ll always somehow be involved in the music, because the music is as much a part of my life as the spiritual side of my life. I think they’re all interwoven."

I just think that could really happen. Probably take me a couple of months to do it, and right now me and Sharon have been working on a duet record, the first duet record we’ve ever gotten to do. So that’s taking precedent right now.

Ralph Stanley had announced his retirement, and now it appears to be on hold. Do you ever think of yourself in terms of, ‘One day I’m not going to do this anymore,’ or do you see yourself doing it until you just can’t do it anymore?

I see myself more the latter. You know, I will continue on as long as I can play and sing. I don’t think I want to keep singing and keep playing if I can’t sing in tune or play and keep up with the band and everything. So if that happens, I would have to bail on that.

But I think I’ll always somehow be involved in the music, because the music is as much a part of my life as the spiritual side of my life. I think they’re all interwoven. You can’t extract one from the other, because music is so spiritual anyway. To me, it comes from the same source. So I think it’s just a part of who I am, it’s a part of what I was created to do. So I see music as a longtime adventure for me, and new things to look at, and new things to record, and new people to work with.

Ry Cooder’s been talking about trying to do something together, and of course me and Bruce Hornsby have done two records together, and Barry Gibb was talking about trying to do something together some time. I don’t know what he’s going to be doing now that he sold the Cash property, so I don’t know if they’re ever gonna come up this way on any kind of an extended visit or not. They come back every so often, but I don’t know if they’ll have a reason to come back now.

That would be an interesting project, just to see how those two very different approaches would come together.

Yeah! we did ‘Stayin’ Alive’ on the Opry about six or eight months ago, a bluegrass version of ‘Stayin’ Alive.’ [Laughs.]

I did not know that! [Laughs.]

It’s on YouTube. [Laughs.] It’s pretty wild.

There’s been a lot of focus recently on pop country, is traditional country music dead, is rap killing country and so on. What’s your take on all of these more recent changes in the commercial marketplace?

Well, it’s just a part of human nature to wanna change and wanna not be like your fathers, you know. And I want to be more like my fathers, many times. [Laughs.] I love the input of the past. I love going back and listening to George Jones and Ray Price and Webb Pierce and Kitty Wells, people that I’ve just grown up loving and listening to all my life. And talking about bluegrass, you’ve got Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Flatt & Scruggs, Jim & Jesse, the Osborne Brothers and on and on and on, great groups.

There’s so much as we get older that we can go back and re-listen to again and realize we didn’t get all of that the first time or second time or third time, or fifth time, or hundredth time that we listened to it. There’s always something — the music is alive. I think bluegrass is alive, anyway. I think bluegrass music definitely is living music. And with every generation, some kids find it, some kids discover it.

"I don’t know, I think, to me it’s okay to have the new — but don’t throw the old away. I think there should be some artists who can come out and survive doing traditional country music."

The thing about modern country that I hear is, it doesn’t have any depth at all. It’s just so shallow, and the songs that are written now are just written about a certain young age group, and I don’t think it’s really connecting with my age and older. I’m 60 now, and I think country music has really wanted a younger audience, and it got what it wanted.

I have hundreds of different kinds of things on my iPhone, in my iTunes catalog. I’m not saying that I’m religious about, it has to be Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, George Jones — I’ve got Django Reinhardt, I’ve got the Beatles, I’ve got Leon Russell, Joe Cocker. I’ve got so many great artists. I’ve got all kinds of rich, great music on there that I love to listen to and glean through.

But the music that we’re hearing today sure is different. And I know that I was different when I came to Nashville, so I’m not saying that different is bad. I don’t know, I think, to me it’s okay to have the new — but don’t throw the old away. I think there should be some artists who can come out and survive doing traditional country music. They’ve got to go farther back than Garth [Brooks] and Keith Whitley. They’ve got to go back to the well, where we can draw from that time period.

Bluegrass is a really healthy genre right now, but a lot of that older music is really neglected.

You know, not that many young Bob Wills followers anymore. I was out in Texas recently, and I asked a friend of mine, “Man, there’s more bluegrass bands in Texas than there is Western swing bands — what’s up with that?” It’s just kind of a dying sound. Nobody’s out dancing anymore. Kids don’t dance anymore like we did. Our generation, we’d go to dances; now everybody sits around and looks at their iPhone all day long, and gets on Facebook, and that’s their entertainment. They’ll sit and text each other across the table, and say 10 words, and text for 45 minutes. It’s the weirdest thing. [Laughs.]

If you could reach people with one or two things about this book, what’s the big takeaway you’d like for readers to have?

I would really want people to know that God gives everybody a gift. There’s nobody that doesn’t have a gift from God. And finding your gift, finding your place, is the journey. If you’ll be honest with the gift and be willing to give it as part of who you are, that gift can make you money, it can make you famous —  but you’ve got to be careful, ’cause God doesn’t call us to be famous, He calls us to be faithful. So you have to kind of be careful there and know why you’re here.

I would want people to know that. I would want people to know the importance of faith and family and how, even if you had a bad dad or a deadbeat dad or a mom who was a drug addict or an alcoholic, that’s not your destiny. That’s not who you are. That’s not who you were created to be. They chose that, but you don’t have to be like that. You can change your destiny, you can change your life.

I think people think, ‘Well, I’m that-a-way because Dad or because Mom.’ They’re always looking over their shoulder and laying blame on the past, when you’re the only one that can change the present and the future. God will help you do that, and I think this book really states that.

Kentucky Traveler
HarperCollins

Like the death of Keith Whitley — he did not have to go out like that. He just didn’t have to do that. He chose to do that, and that was his choice. It breaks my heart. It’s 25 years ago.

But I think there’s a lot of wisdom in this book, and there’s a lot of markers that you can highlight and say, “Hey, this is true for me, right here.” A lot of great history, a lot of fun, a lot of jokes. It’s a fun book, but it really is a book of family and faith, and the importance of family and community.

That front cover says so much. That picture on the front of the book, it’s the earliest picture I know of of me playing the mandolin, that first mandolin my dad bought me. There I am standing beside my dad, there’s my cousin Euless with the fiddle, there’s my grandpa, you can only see about half of him, my great-grandfather. I had some uncles you can see at the back of the picture there behind us.

But there I am at five years old, around my brethren, around my family, around the people that love me most, and just the importance of growing up with that kind of covering, that kind of eldership, that kind of life that I could learn from these people, where I honored them, and they blessed me. That’s so important, and it tells such a story of the whole book when you see that front cover.

NEXT: Rosanne Cash Discusses 'The River & the Thread'

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