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Ricky Skaggs returns to the radio - but this time, he's doing it

High on a hill outside Nashville, Ricky Skaggs steps out the door of his home. The wind drifting through the front-porch wind chimes punctuates his words with a sweet, gentle melody.

"There's always a breeze blowing up here," says Ricky, "so that wind chime just goes all the time."

Ricky is comfortable with such natural sounds - after all, he abandoned mainstream country in 1996 after nearly 20 Top 10 hits to make all-natural bluegrass aimed at homegrown fans rather than radio or sales charts.

But with the mountain-music revival sparked by the smash O Brother soundtrack, things have changed. Bluegrass is big business these days.

"It's great to see the music get accepted a whole lot more," he says. "It is such a blessing to hear some bluegrass on the radio and TV."

And now Ricky himself is back on the radio with "Halfway Home Cafe," a gentle acoustic ballad from his latest album, History Of The Future. It's a Paul Overstreet-penned tune about the value of forgiveness - a message Ricky is proud to sing about.

"People need to know they're loved and accepted, even when they make bad choices," he says. "From a father's perspective, having four children, I realize they don't always make the right choices. But it's kind of like how God is with me when I do that - I know He still loves me. This song was not intended to be a gospel song, but there certainly is a message of the gospel in it."

Ricky will be spreading that word on this summer's Down From The Mountain tour, an offshoot of the O Brother phenomenon. He'll be joined on the road by wife Sharon White and her own family group, The Whites, as well as his two youngest children, 18-year-old Molly and 13-year-old Lucas. "That ought to really be wild!" says Ricky. "We've never been able to take the kids with us before."

That may not be the end of Ricky's work with The Whites - the popular Grand Ole Opry group may soon be making another album for his own Skaggs Family Records label. And Ricky himself is planning his first live album in almost 18 years, inspired by the blazing shows he's been playing with his backup band, Kentucky Thunder.

"This is such a hot band live," he declares proudly. "These guys are so good, and there's a lot of stuff we do live that just doesn't come off in the studio."

Ricky's also working on the soundtrack for an upcoming Disney animated film, My Peoples, which will feature the voices of Dolly Parton and Travis Tritt. "That's really going well," he reports. "It's kinda Romeo And Juliet meets the Hatfields and McCoys, with a little Pinocchio thrown in for good measure. It's gonna be a blast!"

Taking on such new challenges is just one more way Ricky, at 48, stays as vital as the day he was a 15-year-old prodigy joining bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley's band. He continues to be guided by the examples of his heroes - bluegrass pioneers like Ralph, Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs.

"Those guys are the architects, the guys that really built the framework," he says. "It's wonderful to see these men who are 75 and older still winning Grammys. It gives me a lot of confidence to keep the music real and stay true to the course."

And as his accomplishments keep piling up after three decades of music-making, it's easy to imagine Ricky joining the hallowed company of his heroes as a country and bluegrass legend himself.

"I'd lie if I said that didn't enter my mind - what kind of a legacy I'm leaving," he allows. "I'm convinced that music is a part of God's nature, a part of who He is, and I've been blessed to be able to hear that sound, to hear those ancient tones. So to go into a club, or a casino, or a bluegrass festival, and be able to sing hope to people, that's a great legacy to leave.

"I know that may sound hokey to some folks, but that's really where my heart is."

-- Chris Neal