- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs kicks off the new year with appearances tomorrow and Saturday with his band Kentucky Thunder at the Birchmere in Alexandria.

Mr. Skaggs’ roots are deep in the soil of eastern Kentucky, a region that’s home to such country stars as Loretta Lynn, the Judds, Dwight Yoakam and Billy Ray Cyrus. Yet his tendrils have also extended to the capital area.

“I am from Lawrence, Kentucky, and while I stayed there I guess off and on, 18 years, 19 years, my dad was a welder and we moved quite a bit looking for better jobs,” says Mr. Skaggs from his home in Nashville, Tenn.

Mr. Skaggs once held a day job with the Virginia Electric and Power Company. But his stay here was short-lived. In 1974, at the age of 20, he signed on as the fiddler with the popular progressive bluegrass band The Country Gentlemen.

Later he worked with noted banjoist J.D. Crowe, one of bluegrass’ pioneer performers. Then he formed the Boone Creek Band with Jerry Douglas, the cross-genre dobroist (from bluegrass to pop music).

All of this led to a stint playing with renowned recording star Emmylou Harris as a member of the popular Hot Band.

It was a springboard to an enormously successful solo career. Mr. Skaggs has earned more than 60 awards and commendations — including eight Grammys, eight Country Music Association awards and eight Academy of Country Music awards.

Still, Mr. Skaggs has felt he was always born to just play bluegrass. His uncle Homan was a mandolin player who, long before Ricky was born, spent hours playing together with Ricky’s father, Hobert Skaggs, who played guitar. Unfortunately, Homan Skaggs was killed in World War II.

“My uncle was killed during the war after one year and one day, and I think my dad made one of those inner vows that if he ever had a son with musical promise, he would put a mandolin in his hands,” Mr. Skaggs says.

“Well, he bought me that mandolin and it became my best friend, my companion, and I have never fell out of love with it. The sound is sweet to my ears. It’s like bread when I am hungry and drink when I am thirsty, and it loves me.”

Reports of Mr. Skaggs’s talent as a youngster circulated in bluegrass circles. Today, Mr. Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder play some of the best bluegrass music one can find, resulting in dozens of new awards on the shelves of the Skaggs Family Records offices.

This year Mr. Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder (reigning IBMA Instrumental Group of the Year) were nominated for five Grammy awards, more than any other Nashville artists.

“When my dad and Mr. Monroe both passed away,” Mr. Skaggs says, alluding to bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, “I could hear my father saying, ‘Do a good gospel, bluegrass album, son.’

“He was proud I did so well in country, but he knew I loved the old-time music and it was a desire of his heart that I do this. And while he never got to see my success in bluegrass, I do believe that when the saints die and go home, they are watching over us and he knows.”

GWAR (God What an Awful Racket) appears Saturday at the 9:30 Club. The group, which has been around since 1994, is actually the product of a marketing strategy experiment by students at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. The group makes enough noise to scare away any of the old year’s demons as they combine music, art, dance and the occasional mechanical maggot in a show that offers the disclaimer: “Expect gore, perversion and scatological humor in the extreme.” Leave the youngsters at home.

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