Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.
Ricky Skaggs celebrates 60 years of learning. The legendary bluegrass and country star turned 60 on Friday (7/18). The Kentucky Traveler (which also happens to be the title of his autobio) grew up in the small town of Cordell, Kentucky where he learned to play the mandolin at five years old. By the time he was six, his talent was clear enough that his father decided he had to get that boy onstage. The rest, as they say, is music history. Ricky recently shared with me some of the lessons he’s learned along the way.
JWK: So, you recount your life in Kentucky Traveler. Tell me about the book. What is the message of your life?
RICKY SKAGGS: The book really is an autobiography. So, it starts very early in my life. Actually, the prologue is the story of when I meet (bluegrass legend) Bill Monroe, my childhood hero who ends up being my musical hero and my musical mentor throughout my life. It’s just a great book about family, faith, music, growing up in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, growing up poor and just living off the land — you know, hunting and fishing for food…We could go to the grocery store but it was like thirty minutes away. We loved living off the land. My dad (grew) a garden. Every year we would have fresh corn, green beans, cabbage, onions, tomatoes (and) cucumbers — to make pickles and stuff.
My mother, she was brilliant, absolutely a brilliant woman. She was a real true believer in Jesus Christ and taught us kids how to trust Him, how to believe Him, how to believe the Bible as truth.
So, it was a great way to grow up. It was very rural. We lived in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, in Lawrence County. It was a great way to know who you were — to grow up to know about the importance of family and trusting people.
JWK: I was watching some of those Moments episodes you did for INSP. I was particularly touched by that segment in which you talk about overhearing you mother praying for you. Can you tell me about that — and how that impacted your perspective on life?
RS: Whether it’s your mother or it was someone else, if you’ve never heard someone pray for you and call your name out in prayer — specifically call your name — it’s a very, very touching, very somber moment. Very deep. Very spiritual.
I walked in the house looking for her one time and couldn’t find her in house. I walked out onto the back porch and she wasn’t out there. So, finally, I kinda noticed her bedroom door wasn’t closed. It was cracked (open), maybe an inch or so…I remember just kinda sticking my head in and, you know, opening the door a little bit. I saw her down on her knees and she was praying. She was praying for my dad, praying for brothers and my sister and then I remember hearing her call my name out. Man, it was just so powerful to see the glory on her face, to see the love and the heart for family that she had. It was just something I’ll never forget. It’s like a leaf frozen in the ice. It’s just always gonna be there. I’ll always remember seeing it.
JWK: Has prayer been an important factor in your own life?
RS: Oh, yes! (Our family is) praying constantly — or thanking God just constantly. We’re just trying to keep an attitude of prayer.
Paul tells us to “pray without ceasing.” How can you do that? How can you pray without ceasing? I mean, you’d be doing it 24/7, you know? But I think that means be conscious of prayer — be in a communication with God always. Always be prayerful. Always be grateful. Always be thankful.
I don’t think you can get to God unless you’re thankful and grateful. The Bible says you “enter His gates with thanksgiving and enter his courts,” that means his presence, “with praise.” So, we can’t even until we become thankful to Him and thankful for His life in us. Then we can get His attention. But I think (when) people just start hollerin’ or screamin’ at God and say “Why don’t You do this?!” or “Why don’t You that?!”, I don’t think He hears that. I mean I think He hears it but I think He doesn’t pay any attention to it until He hears a grateful heart. I think that gets His attention.
JWK: Do you think your wisdom about such things has grown as you’ve matured and gotten older?
RS: I’m 60 years old, so I would hope that I’d have some wisdom. My daddy used to tell me that I wouldn’t have a lick of sense until I turned 40 and then when I got to 50 I might know something. So, I think there is a part of wisdom that comes with age but the things that you do a lot, you get good at. I think to be good at our faith (is to be) faithful.
God calls us to be faithful, not famous. So, I think we become faithful — that means full of faith — that we trust Him, that we have faith in Him, that we have faith that we’re not gonna make the decisions that we used to make, that we’re gonna have faith to walk through those things and the courage to walk through things that maybe before we just say “Nah, I’m not gonna do this…I’m gonna do what I think is right.”
So, it takes time. You don’t just wake up full of faith. It is a process. It’s like a muscle. You have to exercise faith. You really do because you can have flabby muscles by not exercising them — and you can have flabby faith by not exercising it. I think it’s something that you just really have to be consistent (with) and try to work at. And I don’t mean work for God’s favor or brownie points from God. I don’t think we can do that. I think He loves us unconditionally but I think it is a mindset. It’s where our heart is. It’s where our treasure is. It’s just practicing the presence of God.
JWK: In another Moments segment, you talk about “earning” the right to take you faith message to the audience. You suggest that by using your God-given talent to give your audience a good show, you earn a certain amount of trust that provides an opening in which they’re open to hearing your thoughts on things like faith.
RS: I think it does. I think when we go out and really love on them, telling them that we’re so glad to be there and we play music that they’re there to hear, to watch and experience and start getting their trust, then I think somehow it gives us the authority, or gives us the favor. I’m not sure it’s the “right.” I may have misspoken that word. What I mean by that is that I think we earn their trust, we earn something by going out and giving the audience time to warm up to us instead of like a preacher would maybe go out and start preaching as soon as he walks out onto the pulpit. It’s a completely different arena. We’re going out in the marketplace where people are maybe accustomed to going to church. So, it does make a difference.
JWK: You obviously really enjoy using your God-given talent. Personally, I’ve found that talent can be an ego-driven — a way of gaining stature for yourself — but you’ve chosen to your talent as an expression of gratitude driven, a way to praise God while helping and encouraging others. How did you come to choose that path?
RS: I guess I didn’t always view this the way I view it now. When I was young, I used to think that my talent would be something that would make me money — and, hopefully, make a living. I mean when I first started playing I was playing because I really loved it. It was just fun. And then I started seeing the financial aspects of it and thought “Gosh, when I get older maybe I could play music for a living. So, that happened. Then the older I got — and the more I started playing and everything and especially, the more that I got to trusting God and realizing that He was the Giver of these gifts, the One that gave me the talent — once I realized that…it was like a door opener that I used the gift and talent that I have to be able to bring truth to people. I can bring comfort people. I can sing a song that will help someone. You know, in the audience, you never know who it is who might be sitting out there who really just needs healing and help. To be able to be a carrier of grace, a carrier of love and peace, that’s an awesome calling.
I know I never wanted to be behind a pulpit. I used to have people tell me that I was going to be preacher…Maybe I do (preach) in my own way. Maybe I bring the Gospel or bring Good News to people’s lives but I do it with a mandolin or a guitar, not behind a pulpit.
JWK: While your music, I think, has always been positive, it seems to me that over the past couple of years, in general, has become more hopeful and positive.
JWK: But other media, particularly, I think, television has grown very dark over the past decade or so. Do you have any thoughts on that?
RS: There is a lot of darkness, that’s for sure. But, even as things get darker, it only takes a little light to be seen in the darkness. So, I think people are more afraid of the darkness. Christians, especially, are fearful of the darkness that’s coming down when we need to be celebrating and rejoicing over the Light that’s in us. Greater is He that’s in us, than he that’s in the world. People just don’t read the Bible. They don’t their Bible and claim the Scriptures that Jesus spoke or that the Apostles spoke to us. There’s just so much (that’s) positive, there’s so much goodness in the Word that, to be able to carry that every day in your brain, your spirit will just call something out — like a Scripture.
So, I think the world has definitely gotten more cynical in my lifetime toward Christianity, toward the faith. But that’s just part of what’s coming and what’s happening. It’s supposed to be that way. The Bible talks about darkness over the world and deep darkness (among) people but a light and shine for your life has come. So, I think we need to just take a deep breath and…
JWK: The light will overcome the darkness.
RS: Yeah, absolutely! Every time! You know, the darkness is there for a purpose. I think the world works on opposites. You’ve got positive and negative. You’ve got hot and cold. You’ve got light and dark. You’ve got hard and soft. You’ve got lies and truth. There’s an answer for everything. We have to know what’s what. That’s why it’s so important to read the Bible and to really believe it.
JWK: One final question? To what do you attribute your longevity in an industry in an industry that can be very fickle?
RS: Well, I think God has been very faithful to me.
I haven’t had a physical in about 10 or 12 years until I went about a month ago…I was a little afraid that I was gonna get bad news or something like that but, you know, I didn’t go to the doctor because I felt good. So, why go to the doctor? But I have no problems, thank God. Cholesterol is up a little bit but that we can work on with diet and exercise.
I think my assignment’s not over. I think every one of us has an assignment from God and we’re called to it. If we’re believers — and we really believe that God has a purpose for every one of us — then He can take me home any time He wants to because I’m ready to go. Vince Gill had that song (asking) “What are you you going to Threaten Me With? Heaven?” That’s such an incredible song when you think about it.
I’m not a (drug addict) or an alcoholic or anything like that that’s very prevalent in the music industry. I’ve always lived clean that way. I try to eat good and take care of myself because I know that there’s a purpose for what I do. Music is something that is still so fresh to me and exciting to me and a part of my life — that I just continue wanting to be a part of. I want to continue making good music and…taking music to the people.
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11