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The bluegrass and country star is on a book tour to support his new autobiography, "Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music."
DON PETERSEN | Special to The Roanoke Times
Ed Stanley of Botetourt County is all smiles after Ricky Skaggs (right) autographed a copy of his new book at the Valley View Mall Barnes & Noble.
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Bluegrass and country star Ricky Skaggs spent some of the most difficult days of his life in Roanoke. In August 1986, his 7-year-old son, Andrew, had been shot in the face, the victim of a drug-fueled, sleep-deprived long-haul truck driver’s road rage on Interstate 81, near Daleville.
Twenty-seven years later, his son is doing relatively well. And Skaggs has found himself frequently reliving that time on a book signing tour to support his autobiography, “Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music.”
His tour stopped on Wednesday at the Valley View Mall Barnes & Noble. In an interview just before the signing, he noted that he had been just 40 minutes outside Roanoke when a radio interviewer asked him about the shooting and its lessons.
“It was hard to talk about again in this book and kind of relive all that stuff again, and just for him to have to dredge that back up again when he reads it,” the 59-year-old Skaggs said. “It was a tough time, but he taught me a real lesson in forgiveness.”
As his son received treatment and surgeries at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, Skaggs was dealing with some deep anger. But Andrew, with a sentence, set his father at ease.
Skaggs writes that Andrew told him: “Daddy, we need to pray for that man, and we need to forgive him, too, ‘cause he doesn’t have Jesus in his heart.”
Andrew Skaggs is 34, married with two sons and lives in Kentucky. At 15, he was involved in a near fatal car crash in which he lost his gall bladder and spleen, with a resulting immune system weakness that led to a near fatal case of double pneumonia when he was 21.
His father, a devout Christian, credits the power of prayers for the son’s several recoveries.
During that mid-1980s stay in Roanoke, Skaggs was atop the country music world, having scored hit after hit — “Heartbroke ,” “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’, ” “Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown ,” “Honey (Open That Door)” and “Highway 40 Blues ” dominated radio and sales charts. And he had won multiple Grammy Awards.
But unlike a lot of performers whose shelf life is up, Skaggs found new life by returning to bluegrass. And just as he was close to the site of a darker chapter of his life on Wednesday, the Nashville, Tenn., resident was also relatively near the Southwest Virginia home of bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley , who gave a start to the young Skaggs and his then-singing partner, the late Keith Whitley .
The pair’s harmonies reminded Stanley and others of the way that brothers Ralph and the late Carter Stanley used to sing together. Both Skaggs and Whitley would ride the bluegrass train to Nashville and wider commercial success. The book includes plenty of Skaggs’ accounts of his relationship Ralph Stanley, who recently announced his farewell tour.
Last time Skaggs saw his mentor was a couple of years ago at a Stanley performance south of Nashville.
“You want to get up and sing one with me?” he remembered Stanley asking. Skaggs did, of course, and found himself “waiting, like I did when I was 16 years old, sitting backstage waiting for Ralph to call me out.”
It was fun, but not without some sadness.
“It was hard to see him getting so old,” Skaggs said. “But Doc [Watson] went home last year, and Earl [Scruggs] went home last year, Mr. [Bill] Monroe in ’96. So I had to redo my book, like, three different times as I was writing it, because those … guys plus Levon Helm died too, and he was a friend, and I played some with him.”
He added that it was his job to “write about ’em with honor and respect.”
Skaggs is long removed from the commercial country music world but aware of that musical landscape.
“It ain’t the country music I grew up with, I know that,” he said. “And I’m sure the country music I was playing in the '80s wasn’t the country music that George Jones and Webb Pierce and Ray Price was singing when they came to Nashville. I think there’s always a young slant, and they’re kind of adding their part to it.
“But at least with what I was doing, I was going back to the old well and trying to bring bluegrass into traditional country music. It wasn’t like I was trying to do a new country music sound and just forgetting Webb Pierce and George Jones and Flatt & Scruggs and those guys. I was trying to mesh the two together.”
What he is hearing now is kids that grew up listening to rock and pop music, an “American Idol”-style of country.
“But boy, I tell you, I am not going to thrash ’em,” he said. “I’m not going to speak ill of them. I want to be their friend and I want to be there if they need me for any reason.”
Hunter Hayes — a multi-instrumentalist like Skaggs — has been among a few newer country acts that have approached him for advice.
“I still care about being an influence to young kids,” he said. “I feel like if I can influence them musically, with the talent that I have, maybe I can kind of help them in their personal lives as well, their spiritual lives, because they need to get that right, too.”
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