"We found out that Bill Monroe was coming to a little high school real close to where we lived in Kentucky and we all went to see him,” he tells Billboard. The son of a welder, Skaggs was given a mandolin at the age of 5 and was recognized by members of his church as being a talented young musician.
"About 20 minutes into Mr. Monroe's show, my neighbors started shouting 'let little Ricky Skaggs get up and sing a song.' After hearing that a couple times, he called me up on stage. He had no idea who I was, but he reached down and plucked me up by the arm and asked what I played," Skaggs recalls.
When Skaggs told him he was a mandolinist, Monroe chuckled, handled Skaggs his own instrument and watched and listened as Skaggs performed “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?” by the Osborne Brothers. Says Skaggs: "In later years I came to realize what a defining moment that really was for me.”
Skaggs is joined by more than 50 musicians, including Bela Fleck, Del McCoury and Laurie Lewis, featured in the film Big Family: The Story of Bluegrass Music, which airs Friday night (Aug. 30) nationally on PBS stations. The two-hour film traces the history of the American genre, beginning with the influence of Scottish, Irish and African-American communities on bluegrass with recordings and performance footage showcasing the genre Skaggs helped popularize to a much larger audience.
Much of the film focuses on Monroe, a Kentucky-born mandolin and guitar player, singer and songwriter who created the blue grass sound, first with his brothers Birch and Charlie and friends to form the Monroe Brothers. They eventually relocated to Chicago and then to Nashville, where Monroe joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1939 and solidified his place in music history as the “Father of Bluegrass.”
The film follows the blue grass musical movement through Great Depression, World War II and the civil rights movement as well as the commercial success of blue grass stars like Skaggs, whose uptempo sound led to 11 No. 1 songs on Billboard's Hot Country chart, four No. 1 albums and 12 Grammys.
In 1982 Skaggs became the youngest person to ever join the Grand Ole Opry, setting off one of the most successful periods of his career with a sound that crossed over into mainstream country with songs like “Highway 40 Blues” and “Country Boy,” which features Monroe on guitar and has him staring in the song’s popular music video as the Skaggs' long-lost Uncle Pen. Skaggs tells Billboard the video was intended to address criticism that Skaggs had strayed too far from his traditional roots with his crossover style.
"I was the black sheep and it got really bad. Part of it was jealousy, but Monroe and the fathers of the music really embraced what I was doing and were talented enough to hear through the steel guitars and electric guitars that bluegrass music was in my heart,” he says.
Portions of Big Family: The Story of Bluegrass Music were filmed at the annual International Bluegrass Music Association's World of Bluegrass meeting in North Adams, Massachusetts, in addition to archival footage from Kentucky Educational Television’s long-running nationally distributed Americana music series, Jubilee.
Big Family: The Story of Bluegrass Music is a KET production with support from the KET Endowment for Kentucky Productions and produced by Matt Grimm and Nick Helton and written by Teresa Day. Consulting producer is Craig Cornwell. Executive producers are Shae Hopkins, Linda Randulfe Marquez and Nancy Southgate.