The sacred and the profane have lived side by side in country music seemingly forever but in bluegrass and mountain music the gospel spirit has had the upper hand from the earliest days of Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys in the 1940s. As Monroe and the other founding fathers of bluegrass have passed on, 15-time Grammy winner Ricky Skaggs – who is performing on Saturday, May 25 at The Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor with Kentucky Thunder and special guests The Saline Fiddlers – has worked tirelessly to keep the spirit of old-time camp meetings alive. So, with Easter just days away, Jim Cain of Acoustic Routes Concerts asked Skaggs to talk about his upbringing in Kentucky and share his thoughts on the intersection of music and faith.
Here’s what he had to say:
“The one thing that has truly stood the test of time is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The way mountain folks have worshipped Him in song and in deeds shows the beautiful life of faith and the community of believers I was raised up with. I wouldn’t take all of the world's gold for the upbringing that I had in the mountains of Kentucky.
“My mother and dad were godly people. Mother was a real woman of prayer. She believed if she would be faithful to pray, God would be faithful to answer. And that’s the kind of simple but powerful life in Jesus she had. So those kinds of people blending beautiful mountain ballads, old time fiddle and banjo tunes, listening to the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night, going to church on Sunday mornings, no wonder I fell in love with music, family and Jesus. He loves the simple life, He loves the poor, He loves the committed believer that takes Him at His Word. As scripture says, ‘But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him' (Hebrews 11:6, NKJV).”
Of course, there’s no better way to show the power of these connections than in performance, so Acoustic Routes has compiled a list of some of Skaggs’ most reverential work.
What a Friend We Have in Jesus No one has counted the number of times this 19th century hymn has been played at the Grand Ole Opry, but this version pairing Skaggs and Steven Curtis Chapman is surely one of the most graceful. The song was originally written by a preacher to comfort his mother when the two were separated by the Atlantic Ocean.
The Solid Rock The origins of this hymn go back to 1837. It’s one of more than 100 songs written by Edward Mote, the son of pub owners in Victorian England. Joining Ricky are The Whites – Buck, Cheryl and Ricky’s wife Sharon.
The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn In the late 1970s, Ricky Skaggs joined Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and he recorded his first-ever lead vocal on this song, which was written by Skaggs’ old boss Ralph Stanley who said the words and melody came to him in a dream.
Little Mountain Church The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded with some of the greatest living country stars on their three-volume magnum opus, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" Volume two includes this track and performances by Emmylou Harris, John Denver, John Prine, Johnny Cash and more.
A Voice from on High This song connects Skaggs with two of the biggest musical influences in his life: his hero Bill Monroe who wrote the song with Bessie Mauldin, and Ralph Stanley who first recorded the song in the early 1950s with his brother Carter.
Daniel Prayed This song is a staple of Skaggs’ repertoire and The Stanley Brothers before him, and this arrangement is a joyful and exuberant retelling of the story of Daniel in the lion’s den.
I’m Awake Now NPR called this song a “lovely, irresistible collaboration” between Skaggs and his daughter Molly. “You don't have to have a shred of religious belief to be charmed by the combination of Molly's voice and her father's mandolin.”
Tickets to Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder are available at Ticketmaster.com.