LIBERTY — The hair is longer, the face and body are fuller, but Ricky Skaggs can still pick it.
The mandolin master is a legend in bluegrass, country and gospel music: Inductee in six Halls of Fame, winner of 15 Grammys, of nine CMA awards, of eight ACM awards. Skaggs and his band, Kentucky Thunder, will play two shows — at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. — this Saturday at the Liberty Showcase Theater.
The night before, he will be playing at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
The list of his honors is long. Skaggs playing music when he was just 5 years old. At age 6, he performed on stage with Bill Monroe and at 7 he performed the song “Ruby” on the live Grand Ole Opry TV show with Lester Flatts and Earl Scruggs.
In 1980, he kicked off his solo career, earning 12 No.1 hits. In 1982, he became the youngest person ever to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. He has collaborated with numerous artists over the years ranging from Phish to Bruce Hornsby to Barry Gibb.
Chet Atkins once said Skaggs “single-handedly” saved country music when he shifted his focus from bluegrass to country in the early 1980s. Then 10 years later, he switched back to more of a focus on bluegrass with the album “Bluegrass Rules!”
His biggest country hit was “Country Boy,” with its long instrumental solo in the middle. The music video features a cameo from Bill Monroe himself.
Born in Cordell, KY, Skaggs’ intersection with Monroe occurred during a nearby performance by Monroe and his band. Some of the Skaggs family’s neighbors, who’d seen Ricky play mandolin at church, kept calling out to Monroe to let “little Ricky Skaggs” come up and sing a song with the band. When he went up onstage, Monroe asked him what he played, and he told him mandolin. That day, Skaggs hadn’t brought the mandolin his father had given him, as he had no idea he’d be playing. Monroe took his own Gibson F-5 mandolin off his shoulder and put it on Skaggs.
As a teenager, he played with Ralph Stanley’s band. Then came stints with the Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe and The New South, Boone Creek (with Vince Gill), and Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band. Skaggs launched his solo career in 1980.
Last summer Skaggs, 67, celebrated his 41st wedding anniversary. His wife, Sharon White, is a performer herself, singing with her family group The Whites.
In 2020, Skaggs had quadruple-bypass surgery after months of chest tightness and shortness of breath. “It was a major blessing I didn’t have a heart attack. It was just by the mercy and grace of God that all of this happened in this way,” Skaggs told People magazine.
“Don’t put off tomorrow what you can do today,” he said to encourage people to get checked out when they feel something wrong.
Listen to passionate songs such as “Can’t Shake Jesus” and the artist seems to sing with his heart as much as anything.
Skaggs has released more than 30 albums and has performed thousands of shows. He started his own record label, Skaggs Family Records, in 1997 and released 12 consecutive Grammy-nominated albums. In 2020, Skaggs received the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the United States.
On Saturday, fans can expect to hear a mix of bluegrass and gospel along with plenty of instrumentals. “The band loves to play,” he says.
“It’s pretty much totally improvisation, it really is. We’ll do an intro that will be the same pretty much every night, that gets us going. But we’re mostly playing off-the-cuff, playing from our ears. That’s kind of what the heart and soul of bluegrass is; it’s never been a written-out music, not like classical music is all written out and you play what someone’s played for a thousand years.
“We really try to focus on joy,” Skaggs says. “The music we play and the show that we do with Kentucky Thunder, it’s just a lot of fun, a lot of happiness and joy that’s gonna come off that stage.”
Skaggs says that fans in North Carolina have always been very, very supportive. “I remember back in the early bluegrass days that Reidsville was my first bluegrass festival to go to. The crowds have stayed with me through my early bluegrass, then my transition into country and then back into bluegrass again — they’ve stayed with me, which is really nice. It’s just very humbling to have followers like that.”
The Liberty Showcase is located at 101 South Fayetteville Street in Liberty. Ticket prices for the two shows range from $50 to $100.
For more information, visit rickyskaggs.com or https://thelibertyshowcase.com.