Interview: Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White Discuss Duets Album, ‘Hearts Like Ours’
Grammy-winning musicians Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White have been married for 33 years, so it's only natural that they would collaborate on an album of duets, right?
Actually, not so fast. Though they scored a major hit together in 1987 with 'Love Can't Ever Get Better Than This' -- which earned them a CMA Award for Vocal Duo of the Year -- the couple were signed to competing labels at the time and were unable to work out the contractual complications to go forward with a whole album.
The idea lingered on their to-do list through subsequent decades as they became involved in a number of other projects, but on Tuesday (Sept. 30), fans will finally get to hear the results when Skaggs and White release 'Hearts Like Ours' via Skaggs Family Records. The album is available here.
The Boot caught up with Skaggs and White recently to discuss the new album and more in the following interview.
This album has obviously been a really long time coming. What made this finally the right time?
Ricky: Well, 33 years of knowing someone like I know Sharon, and her knowing me like she does, that's worth something when you're working on a project together. You know, part of it was the busyness of life. We had a single out in the '80s called 'Love Can't Ever Get Better Than This.' That was '87, and it was CMA Vocal Duo of the Year, and we thought then, 'What a great time to capitalize on this. What a great time, we've got some momentum, let's go in and do a record.'
God's timing is perfect, and we knew in our hearts that there would be a time that we would actually get to do this.
But you know, that was talk that we thought would be good. We loved each other, we really wanted to do music together, but maybe it might have been misguided, that kind of focus, you know. I just know that the record label that I was on did not want to share me as an artist with Warner/Curb, the label that Sharon was on with the Whites, and vice versa. They didn't want to share Sharon with CBS. So it was kind of a heartbreaking thing, you know; we felt disappointed about it. But I just feel that God, in His infinite wisdom, knew this, and knew what was coming, and knew what it would take for us to be able to do a CD called 'Hearts Like Ours.'
Obviously your faith informs everything you do.
Ricky: God's always concerned about the hearts of people, and this is not a Christian record, but it's two Christians that's on this record [laughs], and sing on this record, and that's the difference. We're not Christian artists, but both of us, the Whites and me, we've done gospel music for years. We do it in our shows, but we're marketplace country music artists, we're not Christian artists.
But to go around a long way and give you an answer, God's timing is perfect, and we knew in our hearts that there would be a time that we would actually get to do this. I'm not sure Sharon ... [laughs.]
Sharon: Well, I have to say, I'm not sure that I knew it. I had almost given up hope. But we were booked to do an event a couple of years ago, and it was not a concert. It was an encouragement event for couples, and our part was gonna be singin' some songs and sharing the story of our life, and Ricky said, 'Let's go in and cut tracks on these songs.' There were five songs that we sang, and we've been singin' 'em ... in fact, the first song that we sang together, ever, as a duet was 'If I Needed You,' and we actually sang that together in our wedding. So that's how far back it goes.
We had these five songs, and we went in and cut 'em, and were pretty far into the process when the event canceled. And I said, 'Great, now what do we do?' [Laughs.] He said, 'Let's finish this. Let's make a CD. We've always wanted to.'
So honestly, it didn't feel like it was an intentional ... Ricky said the Lord just kicked us up off the couch. [Laughs.] That's the way it felt, like we were set up. We thought we were gonna do one thing, and we did something else.
But it's been the right time, and we've enjoyed the entire process so much. And I can say now, I had kind of a hurt in my heart 'cause we didn't get to do it back years ago, or it's always felt like it was pushed to the back burner. It was never something that was important enough to do [until] now. And I realized through working on this that not only is the Lord's timing right, but I think it would not mean to me what it means to me now. For one thing, my perspective about it, and my perspective about our life together and our music, has matured to a place that I know this is more of an outspringing of who we are, rather than it being this musical project that we just want the world to hear. It's not that so much as it is an expression of our hearts, and who we are, and who we are together. So I believe it's something that's going to bless people and bless the world, but if it doesn't, that's okay, too, 'cause it sure did bless us! [Laughs.]
When you've had a project in mind for so long, there could be an infinite number of songs that you have in your mind for it. How did you narrow it down to these?
Sharon: Part of it, as I said, I had some ideas in my mind about things we could sing together, and of course we had the five that we did. But I had kind of given up hope, and I did bring back some of the ideas that I'd been carrying for so long, and honestly, we didn't end up doing any of those.
We contacted some writers that we really like their work, and just started listening. We had a pretty good, lengthy list of songs, and some of the songs that we really liked, we either felt like we didn't sing them together very well, or for whatever reason they weren't pitched right for us, or something like that. But these that we chose, we felt like they were strong, the kind of songs that we wanted to sing, the kind of songs that meant something to us, expressed something that we would say.
I believe it's something that's going to bless people and bless the world, but if it doesn't, that's okay, too, 'cause it sure did bless us!
I've always liked a song that has a real strong message, and I think, as Ricky said, it's not a Christian gospel record, but it is a record that I think has strong inspirational messages in it, and it expresses our faith in the Lord and our relationship together. That's what we were looking for, and just good songs that we could really make ... you know that one that's on there, 'No Doubt About It,' that's an old bluegrass song that Flatt & Scruggs did, and I heard it on the radio one day. It's been re-recorded so many times by so many people, and I heard it, and it was a couple of men singing it, and I thought, 'You know what, that is a duet! That is a male/female duet, right there.' So I told Ricky, and he said, 'Sharon, that's a great idea!' And we had more fun with that one. Kind of our little happy song on there.
You co-produced this album. That can mean a lot of different things, since 'producer' is such a nebulous term. What role did each of you play in the production process?
Ricky: Well, I've produced my records for so many years, and even working with the Whites when I produced them, they really got involved with finding the songs. I don't think I was responsible, that wasn't my job necessarily in that process. What I tried to do with them in the studio was make sure it was recorded well, and make sure I was there for them in their singin' parts and stuff like that. They were really responsible for finding the songs, and I knew Sharon ... I have always known that Sharon had a great sense of a song. She knows a good song, she knows what she wants to sing.
Now, granted, this record stretched her quite a bit. There's two or three songs on this record that I feel like she really wanted in her heart to sing, but it was one of those things where she didn't know if she could really pull it off. But just the desire in your heart that you want to sing something and you love it enough, that's enough reason to go into the studio and work on it. That's what it's really about, is getting in there and hammering it out, and continuing to work on it until you're happy with it. That's the way we make records, anyway. And she did it, boy; she nailed these songs that she felt like she was gonna have some struggle with. She got in there and worked on 'em until she got them she way she wanted 'em, and I really admired that. She never gave up.
I just think that co-producing is something that I'm not really used to, because I, you know ... even co-producing with Gordon Kennedy on 'Mosaic,' you know ...
Sharon: Ricky had the final say! [Laughs.] In a nutshell, [for this album] we made all of the decisions together. And that was such a beautiful thing, because I know there are times when I just have to say, 'I don't really understand that part right there, but I trust you. I trust what you're telling me.' I'm talking about technical stuff -- a lot of that I don't really understand why we do things a certain way, but I trusted him and his knowledge of it, and his heart for it, and he did me the same way. If I said, 'I really don't want to go that direction with this one,' he'd just quit pushing on that. He'd say, 'You're right, we need to do what feels right to both of us.'
We both worked hard, and we brought ... I'm not the kind of producer that Ricky is, I'm not an experienced producer. But I bring what I bring to this. That's kinda how it came together. I have to tell you, it was so much fun. I really enjoyed the entire process more than I ever have, more than I thought I would. I think we're in a place in our relationship where we're just secure and trust each other, and trust the Lord in such a way that we believe He's the one guiding the boat. We're just getting to go with Him.
So if you can relax and not strive in something -- that doesn't mean you don't work; you put your whole effort into it, but you're not striving, you're in a place of trust.
I would have never just demanded that this has to be this way, and you're going to do it. That's not the way our life is. That's just ... that's SUICIDE.
Ricky: I preferred her. I honored her. I wanted her to be ...
Sharon: I have to say [laughs], I saw sometimes he would turn to me and look and ask me things, and I saw the guys look at him like, 'He's never done that before.' [Laughs.]
Ricky: Well, I can always produce another record down the road. I'll always get another chance to do that. But this was so special to me that I wanted her to feel honored, and I wanted her to feel that she was more than 50 percent involved in this. I would have never just demanded that this has to be this way, and you're going to do it. That's not the way our life is. That's just ... that's suicide. [Laughs.]
Sharon: [Laughing] That would be crazy, wouldn't it?
Ricky: Yeah. But we had a ball, we really did. I swear, this was the most fun. We laughed so hard, and there were so many crazy little things that happened along the way. But we just had a great time. It was a wonderful experience. I would start another one tomorrow of we had the songs.
What kind of promotion is there going to be for this? Are you going to do some live dates together that are focused specifically on these songs?
Ricky: We really haven't totally decided exactly how we're going to do this, but we're just compiling data into our minds and trying to figure out what approach we want to do. Certainly we want to do some dates. I told Sharon the other day, we was looking at some dates we already have booked, me and my road manager, thinking about what we could do to promote the record and how we could get it out to the most people, and so I think there's gonna be some opportunities for Sharon to come out with me and Kentucky Thunder, where we'll do maybe 20 or 30 minutes of bluegrass stuff like we normally do, or 45 minutes, and take a break, do an intermission, then come back and do four or five songs from this record and really focus on having Sharon come out and do this with me and the boys in the band.
And if we want to do 'Heartbroke,' 'Honey (Open That Door)' or something like that while we're in the process, we can. I just feel like there's gonna be lots of opportunities for us. I know there's already some TV things that's come up, some major things that people want us to do.
It's kind of newsworthy. Sharon's had a huge career with the Whites for so many years, and it's not like we've never sang anything together. We've had some opportunities to do some things together, but never like this. And this is such a great time, it's a great record. I think with all the new country music that's out there, this record comes at a time when it is absolutely vital that people hear [laughs] ... especially Baby Boomers that have almost drifted away from country music because it's so pop, it's so Katy Perry-ish. It's just really gotten away, and I know that there's a generation of youth out there that are so into vinyl, they are so into Merle Haggard, they are so into Ray Price and Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette and Loretta [Lynn] ... there's a real groundswell of traditional country, and even people like Jack White are still really, really in love with it.
So this is a perfect record at a perfect time for something like this to come out and really inspire people again to go back and glean through the last century's country music. [Laughs.] So we're pretty excited about it.