For readers of Johnny Cash’s autobiography, lovers of O Brother Where Art Thou, and fans of country music and bluegrass, Kentucky Traveler is a priceless look at America’s most cherished and vibrant musical tradition through the eyes of someone who has lived it.
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About the Author
Eddie Dean is a veteran music journalist whose previous books include Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times, cowritten with Dr. Ralph Stanley.
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By Ricky Skaggs
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2013 Ricky Skaggs
All rights reserved.
ROOTS OF MY RAISING
Lay down, boys, and take a little nap,
fourteen miles to Cumberland Gap.
Cumberland Gap, Cumberland Gap,
way down yonder in Cumberland Gap
—“Cumberland Gap,” Appalachian folk song
Iwas young when I left my home back in the mountains, but the
mountains never left me. It don't matter how many years I've been
gone or how many miles I've traveled. Where I come from is who I
am, head to toe. It's there in the way I sing and the way I talk and the
way I pray. Country as a stick!
I grew up in the hills of eastern Kentucky in a hollow called
Brushy Creek. My mom and my dad were spiritual people, and we
went to a little Free Will Baptist church where I grew up hearing
gospel music and old-time preaching. Real fire-and-brimstone stuff,
where they preached so loud you grew up thinking the Lord must
surely be hard of hearing.
We were a community of mountain folks who didn't have much.
But we worked hard and cared for family and neighbors. We all cried
together and we all laughed together and we all sang together. We all
hurt together when there was a tragedy. We all pulled together, 'cause
about all we really had was each other.
2 KENTUCKY TRAVELER
Mom and Dad raised me to be proud of my mountain roots and
who I am. Everything I do in my life today reflects on how I was
brought up by Hobert and Dorothy Skaggs. They instilled beliefs
and values that took root early on, and stayed strong enough to help
me through rough times. I've had a few.
My folks knew that a little mountain pride went a long way. They
warned me not to get too full of myself. They taught me to be thank-
ful for what I had and where I came from. “Son,” they told me,
“always be humble and stay down to earth.”
Now, when I was a young musician seeing the world for the first
time, I was as headstrong as they come. There was a time in my life
when you couldn't have paid me enough to stay in the hills where I
was born and raised. I'm older now, and I hope a lot wiser. I can tell
you now that I wouldn't take all the money in the world to be from
When I was coming up in the business, the only way to get a record
deal was to go to Nashville. It was a dream I'd had since I was a little
boy and first heard the country stars on the Grand Ole Opry. I used
to go to sleep on my Papaw Skaggs's lap listening to the Opry on an
old tube radio in his Ford pickup. To get a clear signal, we'd pull the
truck away from the house where all the electric lines were hooked
up and park down by the barn. He'd turn on the radio and work the
knob to pick up the Opry broadcast on WSM. The radio frequency
out of Nashville would come and go up in those mountains, so you
had to sit there real quiet and wait for the music to break through the
static. And then we'd hear Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe and it was the
greatest sound in the world.
There came a time when I had to leave home and go to Nashville
and try to make my boyhood dream come true. I wanted to carry
Kentucky music out of Kentucky, take it out into the world, and de-
posit it wherever I could. These hills poured music into me from the
time I was a child, and I've tried to honor that tradition. I'm a carrier
of this music. It's in my DNA.
Well, I went to Nashville and had a good run in country music,
and I was lucky enough to live out my dreams. By the mid-'90s,
Roots of My Raising 3
though, I was over forty years old and the hits were starting to dry up.
In 1996, my father, Hobert, and my musical father, Bill Monroe, both
passed away. I prayed about what I should do next. It just seemed
right in my heart to go back to the old foundation stones of bluegrass,
which is what my country career had been built on. I felt a calling to
revisit my musical roots again.
So I went back to the bluegrass I was raised on, the sound that
had inspired me to become a musician in the first place. I decided I
wanted to play the music I learned as a kid in the mountains, whether
I made a good living or not. You know you're doing the right thing
when there's peace in your heart, and I couldn't find that in country
My old boss Ralph Stanley made a prediction to an interviewer
years ago, when I was having all those number-one records and tour-
ing with a tractor-trailer and two buses. “Ricky's making a name for
himself, but you just wait a while,” he said. “I think he'll come back
to bluegrass music.”
Ralph knew something about me that I didn't know myself. It
makes me think of the Scripture from Proverbs where it says, “Train
up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he
will not depart from it.” If you pour the foundation into a person
and point them to the right path, they may stray from that in their
younger years, but they'll return to it when they mature. That hap-
pened to me with bluegrass.
For me, going back to bluegrass and mountain music was like
giving water to a thirsty man. That traditional Appalachian music
is part of the wide rolling river of American roots music. No matter
how many years pass, or how the place itself changes, that music is
Excerpted from Kentucky Traveler by Ricky Skaggs. Copyright © 2013 Ricky Skaggs. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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