Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder
What: Georgia Mountain Fall Festival concert series
When: 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Oct. 8
Where: Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds, 1311 Music Hall Road, Hiawassee
How much: $5 gate admission, $7 music show admission, $2 parking
More info: 706-896-4191
Ricky Skaggs can trace the beginning of his career in bluegrass to a high school stage in Martha, Ky.
It was 1960, and Skaggs was cheered on by a hometown crowd as the father of the genre, the late Bill Monroe, lifted him to the stage. He was 6 years old.
"I told him I played the mandolin," said Skaggs, who will perform Oct. 8 at the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds in Hiawassee. "Well, he just laughed and said, ‘You do?' I said, ‘Yes, sir.' So, he took his mandolin off and wrapped the strap around the mandolin to where it would fit me, and put it on me.
"For me, it was as big as a guitar, because I was so small. But that was a very memorable time, and it was probably the first installment that Bill Monroe made into my life. I think that night was what really seared in my heart the love for Bill Monroe, because he let a little 6-year-old kid get up and play music with him and his band."
A year later, 7-year-old Skaggs made an appearance with two more bluegrass legends on "The Martha White Show" with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. You can find the YouTube video of a solemn-faced Skaggs, telling Scruggs in his Kentucky drawl, "I wanna pick."
"It was a big deal. I made 52 dollars and 50 cents," he said with a laugh. "I thought, ‘Man, there's hundreds in this business.'"
It's no surprise that Skaggs, now 57, is revered as a bluegrass great himself. From the time he first picked up a mandolin, Skaggs has stayed true to traditional country and bluegrass music.
"I've really had a great life. My goodness, what a music-filled life I've had," he said.
"I'm into a new chapter in my life, musically, and I'm not settling down, I'm not quitting, I'm not slowing down.
"I feel like I'm still playing music that is relevant. Music that means something, music that has substance. And I haven't had to prostitute myself, you know, to sell records, or anything like that ... I've never had to bow the knee to Music Row, and I'm grateful for that. God has been so good to me, to allow me to be able to, you know, pretty much set the course for my life, musically, and do what's in my heart to do."
The music community embraced Skaggs' "heart" from the beginning. He became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1982, years after he first performed there at the age of 16. Throughout his career he has won 14 Grammy awards, seven Country Music Association awards and 12 International Bluegrass Music Association awards.
His record label, Skaggs Family Records, is credited with spawning the careers of several bluegrass artists, including Del McCoury, Cherryholmes and The Whites. Darrin Vincent, of the popular bluegrass duo Dailey and Vincent, began his career in Skaggs' band, Kentucky Thunder.
"I kind of feel like Mr. Monroe, in a lot of ways, where, the older you get ... it's like kids and grandkids," he said. "You just look around, and gosh, you've got all these kids that came out of the ‘loins' of your band, so it's kind of nice, but I'm really proud for all these guys."
In his latest album, this year's "Country Hits Bluegrass Style," Skaggs embraces his bluegrass roots while performing songs he made popular in the 1980s and early '90s. He said the crowd in Hiawassee this weekend can expect to hear both bluegrass and country hits.
"I used to draw huge crowds in Hiawassee when we played our country music shows. When we were playing country back in the 80s, early 90s, we would have just a ton of people there," he said.
"This time, we're coming back with the bluegrass band, but we're also bringing a drummer, a piano player and a steel guitar player, so we'll be able to do a bunch of my old country songs as well."
Skaggs said the group will perform country hits including "Honey, Open That Door," "I'm Tired," and "Wouldn't Change It If I Could" in addition to the bluegrass portion of the show, as well as selections from "Mosaic," Skaggs' gospel album.