Seeing Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby live in Scottsdale, AZ was surreal moment. Here were two musicians that have inspired me for a long time having the time of their life on stage. The honesty in both their styles is so apparent when playing live. Ricky Skaggs is basically a living legend and Bruce Hornsby is one of the most talented songwriters and vocalists out there. Needless to say, it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen and when it was over (after two encores) I went out to the merch table and found Ricky Skaggs’ autobiography, Kentucky Traveler. I had no idea that Skaggs had written a book and I had recently read Ralph Stanley’s autobiography Man of Constant Sorrow so I had to pick up Skaggs’ book.
Skaggs’ co-author on Kentucky Traveler was Eddie Dean, the same author who helped Ralph Stanley with his autobiography and since Skaggs’ was apart of Stanley’s band for awhile and was mentioned quite a bit in Man of Constant Sorrow, I was interested to read Skaggs’ point of view of the same situations Ralph Stanley wrote about.
One moment that was mentioned in both books was when Ralph Stanley was running late to a show thanks to car troubles. Teenage Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley were attending the show as fans. The bar owner had asked them to play a set to fill the time and they of course were happy to oblige.
Now Ralph Stanley writes about this in his book and how he came in late and there was Ricky Skaggs singing up on stage and how much Whitley and Skaggs reminded him of Carter and himself years before. Ralph said that it was the moment he discovered Ricky Skaggs and he was the reason why Skaggs had so much success. While Ralph Stanley did play a big part in Skaggs’ career, after reading Kentucky Traveler, I might say that Ricky Skaggs would have success whether Ralph Stanley was late that night or not.
In Kentucky Thunder, Skaggs talks about playing with Bill Monroe at the age of seven and then also performing with Flatt & Scruggs on television before even becoming a teenager. I love Ralph Stanley and he has had an influence on my own music but I would say Skaggs was meant for music success in country and bluegrass no matter what or whose band he started with and it could be argued that Monroe discovered him first.
Reading Skaggs’ book felt like sitting down with him in the studio for a day. While I was reading it, I felt like he was holding a mandolin and between tunes he would just tell stories from his life. Its the way he writes in the book. Its conversational and makes you feel like you’ve known him forever and comfortable to just read the stories forever. I guess you could say there’s a lot of southern hospitality in his writing.
There’s also a lot of christianity in Kentucky Traveler. I understand that its part of the Bluegrass foundation and I respect that but at some points in the book I felt like Skaggs was trying too hard to push christianity. There was even more than what was in Stanley’s book and he could get pretty christian at times. The religion took away from some of the stories while I was reading it but I’m sure in the long run as I look back on the stories I’ll remember the main facts of his music career and what music meant to him and less religion.
Christianity aside, this book was a great read. I loved learning about his trials and successes in switching to mainstream country and then going back to bluegrass and why he did it. I also enjoyed reading about his relationships with the bluegrass legends like Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley. His support of newer bluegrass artists like Chris Thile was also fun to read about.
If there’s one thing I was able to take away from Kentucky Traveler its that Ricky Skaggs is now one of the overseers of the bluegrass genre and has the knowledge of the greats first hand. He’s a living legend thanks to that and deserves respect from musicians in every genre to staying true to himself and his music.