By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

August 5, 2002

Ricky Skaggs is on his third career - or back to his first.

He's been a prodigy on mandolin, playing with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley before joining Emmylou Harris' Hot Band, another breeding ground for great pickers.

Then he had a good run in mainstream country music, starting in 1981, that resulted in 11 No. 1 songs and four Grammy Awards.

But as Nashville squeegeed the country out of country music and turned up the bass and drums in the '90s, Skaggs, 47, whose roots always showed anyway, found himself more and more on the outside looking in.

"In '96, when I left (Nashville), I realized I wasn't 'New Country,'" he says. "So there was no sense carrying two buses and a van and 21 people.

"My father and Mr. (Bill) Monroe passed away that year, and those two people wanted me to be play bluegrass. And I tell you, it's been great. All my country buddies - Travis (Tritt), Marty (Stuart) and Vince (Gill) - they all said, 'You did the right thing.'"

But Skaggs didn't simply pick up his mandolin and book a solo tour. He started his own record label, Skaggs Family Records - the "Family" speaks volumes about his faith and his values - and released "Bluegrass Rules!" in 1997. "Ancient Tones" and the gospel "Soldier of the Cross" followed and, before he could catch his breath, he had three more Grammys.

"Of course, we never questioned it (the move back to bluegrass)," Skaggs says. "We felt like it was right thing to do. I just wanted to play music that meant something to me."

The phenomenon has touched people, he says, pointing out that he isn't the only one who's returned to bluegrass.

Dolly Parton - is there anyone who has had a more mainstream career? - has released three CDs on the Sugar Hill label that are acoustic and bluegrass.

Patty Loveless, whose voice always sang "mountain" even when her records were rockin', earned rave reviews for her "Mountain Soul" CD and was invited along on the "Down From the Mountain" tour.

"And even as popular as the Dixie Chicks were and are, their new album, which they produced themselves, and the new single, are very heavy into bluegrass and the acoustic realm," Skaggs says. "It's much more back to their roots, and I think it will be well-received.

"There's something going on, there's a revolution happening with this music. We just kind of got in on the ground floor."

Skaggs says he was hesitant at first about joining the "Down From the Mountain" tour. The "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack really isn't bluegrass at all, as created by Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, but an older form of string music.

"I didn't want the bluegrass community to think we were jumping on bandwagon," Skaggs says. "I didn't need that.

"Anyway, once I realized they wanted to add some kind of in-your-face bluegrass with attitude (he calls his style "thrash metal grass") it made sense. And seeing the crowd (on the first night of the tour in Louisville, Ky.), it really did make sense. We're out there to add something to the music."