Rebel With a Cause
by Anthony DeBarros

When Ricky Skaggs released a bluegrass album in 1997, a lot of folks felt as if he?d finally come home. After a 17-year run as a country artist?with four gold albums, a platinum disc and a handful of Grammy Awards?the album Bluegrass Rules! Brought Skaggs back to the genre where he?d emerged in the 1970s while in such seminal bands as The New South and Ralph Stanley?s Clinch Mountain Boys.

Behind the scenes, though, a more foundational shift had taken place?one that saw Skaggs set free from the artistic and personal constraints of being under contract to a major recording label. With the launch of his own Skaggs Family Records in 1997, the Kentucky-bred artist found himself on a road where he could explore music?and music about faith?without restraint.

It?s only natural, then, that late 1999 sees Skaggs releasing his first gospel album, Soldier of the Cross. Not only does it bristle with the fiery guitar- and mandolin-driven playing of Skaggs and his Kentucky Thunder band, it also shows fans another side of the man, a side that abides in a no-nonsense faith.

"A gospel album is something I had wanted to do for a long time?more than 10 years, really," Skaggs says, phoning in from a tour stop in Wisconsin. "I wanted to do one back when I was on Sony (Records), but contractually I wasn?t able to do anything but what they considered commercial country music. That was a big hold-back."

But there was another reason for the wait. Call it the maturing process. For years, Skaggs had not held himself back in letting those around him?from concert promoters to audiences to the bigwigs at his labels?know exactly where he stood on matters of faith. But in reflection, he says, he learned that his outspoken nature at times created tension that ultimately wasn?t the best witness.

"I shared my faith when it seemed appropriate and maybe when it didn?t seem appropriate. Then I?d get called on the carpet. Some radio station would call back (to the label) and say, ?Hey, if we had wanted an evangelist, we would have gotten Billy Graham.? That sort of opened a door for a rebellious spirit to emerge in me and say, ?I?ll do what I want to do.?"

At the time, Skaggs even went so far as to set up a recording session to do a gospel album, but just as he was set to begin, "A very prophetic friend of mine called me up out of the clear blue, and he said, ?You don?t have to do a gospel album to let people; know you?re saved.?

"I knew I?d been caught!" Skaggs continues. "I knew the Lord had spoken to him. I canceled the session because I just knew that God was not going to honor rebelliousness. He was not going to honor me doing something to defend myself or defend my faith. I realized that I was doing it for the wrong reasons."

It would take more than a decade before Skaggs would find himself in the right place, professionally and spiritually, to record an album that fully reflected his faith. But now, because he waited, Skaggs says, "I really believe God?s gonna bless this. There?s a lot of people in country who don?t know where they stand with God. So, this whole album is full of evangelistic messages, but it?s also full of the truth that shows there is a way we can get to heaven, and it?s not out of our work or anything we do, but it?s out of what (Jesus) did on the cross."

Recorded in part at his own Skaggs Place Studios, Soldier of the Cross offers a rich, homespun tapestry of mandolins, banjos and acoustic guitars that serves as a bed for pitch-perfect vocal harmonies.

Bluegrass, he says, with its roots in the struggles of everyday people, "?is very much family? It?s something that has been kept small and kept pure. This music hasn?t been defiled, hasn?t been polluted, commercialized and prostituted, so to speak."

What about country music, a genre he?s largely left behind? "It?s really hard for me to comment on that," says Skaggs, who turned 45 this past summer. "I used to be in it, but I?m out of it now. Whatever I say may be taken as ?sore loser.? But much of what I would consider the purity and morality and traditions have been really lost in country music."

Indeed, Skaggs? rootsy neo-traditionalism was overshadowed by the more pop-oriented leanings country took on in the 1990s. Skaggs and his management team became concerned as his sales began to decline, a situation which led to his cutting ties in 1997 with Atlantic Records.

"I spent a year begging and pleading to get him off Atlantic," says his manager and business partner, Stan Strickland. "We felt like his fan base was deteriorating, and if we didn?t get out there and promote him, nobody would."

To secure a way for Skaggs to maintain his recording output as well as expand opportunities to develop other artists, the pair formed two labels: Skaggs Family Records and Ceili Music, home to artists including Blue Highway, The Del McCoury Band and The Gibson Brothers.

It wasn?t long before they tasted success. Bluegrass Rules! And the early 1999 follow-up, Ancient Tones, the first releases on Skaggs Family Records, both achieved unusually high sales for bluegrass albums.

Now, Soldier of the Cross will likely expose Skaggs to new fans in Christian music. But that doesn?t mean he?ll be stepping out of the general market music scene. He remains adamant about playing in the everyday places where he?s asked to go?from state fairs to casinos.

"The Lord has allowed me to use country music or bluegrass to open the hearts (of people)? We don?t sing songs about having sex and drinking. We go out and do songs that are relational. Then when we present the gospel? we see a whole lot more results than by trying to drag people into the church. There?s a lot of people that will come to our shows that aren?t gonna go to church."

"Originally published in the November 1999 issue of CCM magazine, copyright 1999, CCM Communications. Reprinted with permission. For CCM subscription information, please call: 800/333-9643."