By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch


January 20, 2005

Bluegrass great Bill Monroe continues to cast a massive shadow over the music he pioneered, and nobody is more aware of it than Ricky Skaggs.

It's been 44 years since the night Skaggs' family and friends in Cordell, Ky., chanted, "Let little Ricky play" until Monroe called the 6-year-old mandolinist onstage to sit in. That began a relationship that grew until Monroe's death in 1996, just four days before his 85th birthday. Skaggs promised he would keep the old master's legacy alive.

And he's done that, especially since his return to bluegrass on his own Skaggs Family Records after a decade-plus mainstream country career in the '80s ("Highway 40 Blues," "Heartbroke") that earned him nine Grammys, a pile of country-music industry trophies, fame and independence. "When I came back (to bluegrass) in '96, I realized there were lots of new fans that weren't there when I was doing my country-music stint, even though I was always trying to

include Mr. Monroe when I could," the former Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris bandmate says from his office in Nashville, Tenn. "I felt like if I was going to come back and take my place at the table, I needed to do some education and let people know where this music came from, that there was bluegrass before Alison Krauss.

"That was a mandate of ours, and a man-to-man promise that I made to Mr. Monroe before he passed away, that I would do my part to keep his music alive and tell people about how this music came to him. For 40 years, he survived in Nashville, which never tipped its hat to bluegrass. It was always the redheaded stepchild, it never measured up as commercial and was never taken seriously until recently."

Although he included a few contemporary songs by himself and others on previous CDs, it was time to look ahead, not back, on his latest, "Brand New Strings."

"I started looking for new material for 'Brand New Strings' and I was really shocked to find the (high) quality of songs from Music Row," Skaggs says. "That encourages me that bluegrass is on the upswing. When we were able to get 11 new songs out of a 13-song project, that really fired me up. But we're still paying tribute to Mr. Monroe with 'Sally Jo.'"

"Brand New Strings" features three hot instrumentals by Skaggs and his ace band, Kentucky Thunder -- five-time International Bluegrass Music Association instrumental group of the year -- among stories of love, faith and redemption.

But Skaggs' bluegrass is not a reverential thing, and there in the middle of the title song is an electric guitar solo by young hotshot Johnny Hiland.

"(Hiland) is from another planet," Skaggs says of the young man who, as a boy, took up electric guitar after seeing a Skaggs country show in the '80s. "He did a sit-in with Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani during the (2003) G3 tour. Johnny got up at the Ryman (Auditorium in Nashville) and absolutely stole the show. Here's Steve with his wall of amps, and Johnny pulls out a Fender twin and a delay pedal and just scorched it. It was, like, game up. He's just crazy."

Another young player on the CD is Molly Skaggs, 20, the daughter of Skaggs and singer Sharon White. Molly, a student at Belmont University in Nashville, plays dulcimer. And waiting in the wings is the Skaggses' son Luke, 15, a guitar player who just took up sitar.

Coming up is a Skaggs family Christmas CD, followed by a project in the spring with pianist and former Grateful Dead sideman Bruce Hornsby. But the main focus will continue to be spreading the word -- both of Mr. Monroe and of faith.

"It's not a career to me," Skaggs says. "It has deeper meaning and purpose and calling behind it. We can be a light in a dark place.

"God never called me to be in the church. And I'm not a Christian artist. Nope, that's not my call. My call is to go to the bars and clubs and casinos and festivals, maybe a church or two, but we're called to go into the world."