There aren’t many bluegrass legends left. Bill Monroe, the genre’s originator, died in 1996. Doc Watson, the guitar picker, passed on last year. A legend in his own right, mandolin genius Ricky Skaggs has played with them all and is still going strong.
Skaggs, a 14-time Grammy winner who charted three No. 1 country albums in the 1980s, is in town Thursday, June 13, for two shows at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley. The current dean of bluegrass released his 33rd album last year, “Music to My Ears,” with his band of bluegrass whiz kids, Kentucky Thunder.
It’s going to be a busy summer for Skaggs. Aside from touring, he’s also got an autobiography, “Kentucky Traveler,” due out August 13 and a live album with Bruce Hornsby out on August 20. Then it’s another tour with Hornsby in the fall.
I got a chance to talk with Skaggs by phone Wednesday morning. The interview has been edited for brevity.
Let’s talk about your new album “Music to My Ears.” I’ve enjoyed the variety and thoughtfulness of the selections.
If you know me you know I love traditional songs and the old stuff, so we wanted to do, certainly do some of those like “Tennessee Stud,” a tribute to Doc Watson, who passed away while we were recording this album, “Loving You Too Well,” the Stanley brothers classic and “Blue Night.” I always love going back and finding those old gems like that and being able to kind of add new life. I’ve got a fairly young band with Kentucky Thunder. Gosh, these guys are 25, 30 years my junior. It’s really great to have a young perspective on these older songs.
You talk about Kentucky Thunder and that they’re 25 or 30 years younger than you. What has it been like touring with a band that’s around half your age?
It certainly has its positives. All these guys are humble guys. They’re always wanting to learn and I feel like they’ve got a good teacher around them. It kind of makes me proud to be one of the elders. I’m only 58 but I feel like I’ve got a lot of years left. But I’ve been doing this a long time. I met Bill Monroe when I was six and got to play on stage with him.
It’s great to have the legacy, it’s great to have the history of the music on stage every night from the horse’s mouth in a way. But it’s also great to have youthful guys. Gosh, they’re the Andy Roddicks and Phil Mickelsens of their generation in what they do. They’re truly masters of the fiddle, guitar, banjo and acoustic bass. They’ve really given themselves to learning this stuff. It keeps me digging and trying to do the best I can do to stay up with them, they’re such great players. It really motivates me. I’m not able to rest on my past achievements. I like to be able to move on and move forward with a band like this. And they’re great young men to travel with, too. It makes the journey a lot easier.
You mentioned your status as kind of an elder statesman of the craft of bluegrass right now. Do you feel that added responsibility of having to kind of carry the torch?
It’s an honor for me, it really is. I don’t ever fell the pressure of it. I don’t think feel like I’m going to do it wrong because I’ve been doing it right for so long, and I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. Because of the history and because I’ve been around it and because I’ve seen so many changes and been part of some of the changes — I’ve been in Ralph Stanley’s band at 15 years old. It just changed Ralph’s sound. It added a fresh new spark to his music.
Being with J.D. Crowe and Tony Rice and doing the “New South” record in 1975. That was a major shot in the arm for bluegrass and a lot of people cite that record as kind of a defining moment for a lot of young people in bluegrass.
You have an autobiography, “Kentucky Traveler,” out August 13. You talk about your career but where does the story start?
It starts from when I was five years old when my father bought me my first mandolin. It talks about my upbringing in eastern Kentucky to a great Christian family. My mom and dad, great people. How my dad helped me stay with the mandolin and practice. He was not a slave driver whatsoever but he knew that I would be easily swayed away by other things if I didn’t use the talent that God gave me and develop it. A gift, a talent is like a muscle. If you don’t exercise it every day, it just kind of stays flabby. Of course we didn’t have Sony PlayStation or Nintendo 64 and all that. We didn’t have computers. No iPhones, no iPads. Our entertainment was going and grabbing a fiddle and sitting and playing all day. Music was a big part of our family.
I’ll wrap it up by asking what Seattle fans can expect from your show on Thursday.
We will do some stuff from the new CD, but I’m sure we’ll be doing some of the older stuff as well. I love playing jazz clubs because we get to do a few more instrumentals than maybe we normally would. I know people who frequent jazz clubs love the playing, they love the spontaneity of guitar solos, fiddle solos, so we’ll probably throw in some instrumentals on a CD called “Instrumentals.” Jazz and bluegrass are so much alike. They’re both free form, you don’t really write it down and play it out of your heart and how you’re feeling at the moment.
-Owen R. Smith, on Twitter @inanedetails
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder
7:30 and 9:30 p.m., Thursday at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, 2033 6th Ave, Seattle; $42.50 (206-441-9729 or jazzalley.com).