When Ricky Skaggs postponed his spring tour due to the coronavirus and headed home to Nashville, he was asked to play a live-streamed show at the Grand Old Opry. It was a lovely experience, he said, but “really strange.”
“It was right at the height of everything — the curve hadn’t started coming down or anything,” the bluegrass legend said recently by phone. “They just do it in front of no audience. I told them, ‘Hey, back in the ’70s and early ’80s, that was kind of the norm.’”
He’s kidding, he clarified. But there were times in the hills when things felt almost as strange as today.
“Years ago, I played with a couple of groups from up in eastern Kentucky," he said. "We played the old-fashioned drive-in theaters. We would get up on the roof of the concession stand, they would stick a couple of mics up there, and there would be six of us up there, playing and singing, and everybody would sit and listen to this little speaker they had hanging on the car window.”
Bluegrass may be known for the high, lonesome sound pioneered by Skaggs’ old friend Bill Monroe, but it thrives on closeness and community, especially within its tightly knit bands. That’s made life in quarantine especially tough for Skaggs, 65, who wants to get his group back on the road as soon as possible — hopefully in time for an Aug. 20 show in Clearwater.
“We thought about trying to play as a band, just do a synced-up Zoom, but I don’t know how all that works,” he said. "I just told them to play, be creative, keep practicing, keep working on your instruments, and just write some new songs, write some new instrumentals. Be creative in your time off. That’s what we’ve all been trying to do.”
Skaggs is a 15-time Grammy winner, a renowned purveyor of musically ambitious Americana who nonetheless found fame in Nashville with a string of No. 1 hits in the ’80s.
Just as crucially, he — along with peers like Marty Stuart, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash — is today a true living link to country music’s earliest days. As a child mandolin prodigy, Skaggs played with Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. He would later join the bands of Ralph Stanley, J.D. Crowe and Emmylou Harris.
As the coronavirus sends the American economy into a tailspin, Skaggs can recall conversations with artists who lived and played through the Great Depression.
“Mr. Monroe, he talked about how hard the Depression was,” Skaggs said. “People couldn’t find a job doing anything. He would cut timber down in western Kentucky, where he was from, Rosine, Ky. He just talked about how strong he was. He would go out with an ax and cut a tree down by himself, cut all the limbs off it, roll it down the hill, load a wagon by himself, basically. He was just a hoss of a man.”
But it pains Skaggs to imagine folks like Monroe and Stanley living through COVID-19 today, when they couldn’t go out and tour. He knows how they’d feel, because this is the longest he’s been off the road since the early ’80s. (It’s also the most time he’s spent under the same roof with his wife, singer Sharon White, since they married in 1981. Mostly, they’ve spent the weeks cleaning.)
The coronavirus has hit close to home for Skaggs, as it has for many artists. He knew both John Prine and Joe Diffie, folk and country veterans who died from COVID-19.
“John was such a great performer,” Skaggs said. “He could take a guitar and keep 5,000 people, 10,000 people entertained. He’d go to Bonnaroo with 10,000 people out front and just a guitar and him singing, and have people listening. That’s just genius. And Joe was a great singer and great entertainer. I hate it for the families.”
Skaggs can’t wait for his life on the road to resume. He has faith the music industry will figure out ways to get fans into shows, even if it means playing two shows a night to smaller crowds — although he hopes it doesn’t come to crowd restrictions based on age.
“I just don’t feel like it would be good for any of our shows, any of the promoters, to start carding people, looking at driver’s licenses, saying, ‘If you’re 65, you can’t get into this show,’” he said.
“We’re all making exceptions, and new guidelines are being written for us. Artists are just going to have to comply. Most artists, they just want to play. Our hearts are to play for people. Audiences, they don’t care that they have to be spread out. They just want to hear some live music. It’ll be a little weird to go out there and see 500 people with masks on. That would be a little funny. But hey, that’s okay, if that’s what it takes.”
8 p.m. Aug. 20 at the Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre, 405 Cleveland St., Clearwater. Tickets, $37.50 and up, are currently only available online at rutheckerdhall.com.