NASHVILLE, TENN. - The backstage hallway of the Grand Ole Opry House was nearly empty at 6 p.m. on a Friday night last month as stars, backup musicians and others began slowly arriving for the first of two shows.
In the middle of the hallway was 43-year-old Ricky Skaggs, leaning against one of the metal, gym-like lockers, engaged in serious conversation with a friend about religion.
It was 17 years ago that month in the Opry House that Ricky Skaggs, bluegrass musician, became Ricky Skaggs, country star. The transformation occurred at the CBS-Epic Records show during the Country Music Association's 1980 disc jockey convention.
Mr. Skaggs, newly-signed to the label, wasn't scheduled to perform that night, but was rushed onstage with just his guitar to close the show after headliner George Jones failed to appear.
He electrified the influential country music crowd with his lightning-fast picking and clear, high vocals, mastered at hundreds of bluegrass festivals.
He had played with Keith Whitley in Ralph Stanley's legendary Clinch Mountain Boys band, was in J.D. Crowe's New South band, had recorded in another smooth band called Boone Creek and was a vital member of Emmylou Harris' Hot Band.
Within months, Mr. Skaggs' debut Epic single, Don't Get Above Your Raisin', became his first hit, in early 1981.
Since then, he's earned 12 No. 1 singles, four Grammy awards and won the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year award in 1985.
Along the way, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1982.
Now, 17 years after making country records tinged with bluegrass sounds, Mr. Skaggs has come full-circle and is back in bluegrass music.
He is the host for the bluegrass-acoustic Monday Night Concerts With Ricky Skaggs on The Nashville Network. He also was the host for the International Bluegrass Music Association awards for the past three years, and his new album, Bluegrass Rules, is out on Rounder Records.
"I didn't try to do anything with this album but just play good music again," said Mr. Skaggs when I talked with him backstage. "I've been wanting to do a bluegrass album for about 12 or 13 years. But being with Atlantic and CBS Records all those years, I was pretty much limited contractually to doing straight country or what they considered mainstream or commercial country.
"There never seemed to be the right time to do a bluegrass or a gospel album as far as those record companies were concerned.
"Me and the boys (Mr. Skaggs' band Kentucky Thunder) have been doing a lot of bluegrass festivals on the road, and we felt like we needed something that represented what we were doing to send out to promoters and say, `Hey, there is another side of our lives, too."'
Augusta and Aiken area fans can see Mr. Skaggs Saturday, Nov. 29, when he headlines the 28th annual South Carolina State Bluegrass Festival at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. Tickets for the three-day festival (Nov. 27-29) are $25 daily for reserved seats or $20 for general admission. Tickets for children 13 and younger are $12 daily reserved and $10 general admission.
The Lewis Family of Lincolnton, Ga., perform Nov. 28. Other headliners include Mac Wiseman (Nov. 27), The Osborne Brothers (Nov. 28) and Jim & Jesse McReynolds (Nov. 28). Mr. Skaggs' two former bands fronted by Ralph Stanley and J.D. Crowe perform Nov. 27.
Mr. Skaggs is excited about the excellent reviews Bluegrass Rules has received.
"We all have our roots, and mine are in traditional country, acoustic type music," Mr. Skaggs said. "Bluegrass just happens to be something that I love. I want to spend the rest of my life playing great music and having a good time doing it.
"I really want to promote bluegrass music," he added. "I want to be whatever spokesman I can be for it, because I think it's great music. It's America's music."
Throughout his career, Mr. Skaggs has been vocal about his strong religious beliefs and has combined them with his work for such groups as Feed The Children, United Way, Harvest Food Bank, Crisis Pregnancy Center and his own non-profit organization, Teens in Trouble.
"I've certainly caught some flack about my beliefs," Mr. Skaggs said. "Whether it has hurt my career or not, I don't know. It has caused people to write negative things about me and judge me very harshly in those areas and say that I shouldn't be mixing politics and religion.
"But it's a lifestyle," he continued. "It does create obstacles, but you learn how to get over them or walk around them and hopefully don't plow them down with anger. You have just got to know that's part of it.
"If you're a Christian, you're a Christian gas pumper or a Christian working a Kroger's," he added. "If you had a Christian grocery store, would you put on every can of soup, `Jesus Saves.' Would you do that? No, you wouldn't. But you'd try to raise the Christian level in that store and try to create an environment where people feel peace and feel good about being in there. That's why we try to do with what we do."