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
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
"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
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
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
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."