COMPANY MAN

Years after country stardom put him on the musical map, Ricky Skaggs has finally built his own bluegrass paradise

"This is the Oak Ridge Boys' old building," says Ricky Skaggs, pouring what will probably be his only cup of coffee today -- he's trying to cut down. "It was a great deal. They were really wanting to get out of it, and we were really wanting to get into it."

Since 1997, the Oaks' old place has held Skaggs Family Records, where Ricky records and releases albums by himself and several other performers (see sidebar) at a startling pace. If the lack of caffeine has slowed him down at all, he's not letting on.

"It's amazing when I look at my schedule and see all the things I'm doing," says Ricky, shaking his head as he settles on the couch in the Skaggs Family lounge. "Here I am in the midst of five projects right now. I pray that I can get done the things I need to get done. I'm gonna have to start delegating some authority!"

Ricky frets a little that all the activity takes time away from his family life. "My oldest son, Andrew, has a son now, and I don't get up to Kentucky to see him as often as I need to," he admits. Ricky does spend a little more time with wife Sharon and daughters Mandy and Molly. "Me, Mandy and Molly went to an Indian restaurant the other night and pigged out," he reports with a chuckle.

But Ricky can't help working as hard as he does -- he's a man on a mission. He has an evangelical zeal for bluegrass, and the music's recent popularity burst has him striking while the iron is hot.

"A lot of these kids are getting turned on again to bluegrass through Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek and the Dixie Chicks," he observes. "It's in my heart to teach this younger generation of bluegrass listeners where these songs came from. We want to try to find ways to let these kids know there were Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers."

Ricky's not talking about a dry history lesson, either -- as anyone who hears his new album, Live From the Charleston Music Hall, can attest. It's a vibrant souvenir of a particularly blazing show from Ricky and his hotshot band, Kentucky Thunder.

"I thought, 'These guys are so good, why not do a live album?'" he recalls. "We wanted to capture the energy that's with us every night. I can't say we're that rambunctious every night, but we are when we have a good crowd that wants to hear some musicians play out of themselves."

Charleston Music Hall offers a mix of high-octane standards, soulful gospel and a few brand-new songs. "Knowing how tight money is these days, I felt like people putting down 16 bucks for a record deserve some new songs they can't get somewhere else," explains Ricky.

The album also features a side of Ricky many may not know -- the funny side he reveals with uproarious song introductions and spot-on vocal impersonations between tunes. "Everybody thinks I'm Mr. Serious," he says, "so I felt like I had to have it on there. I could not do a live album and just have applause."

One thing Ricky is serious about is the musical direction he's chosen since abandoning mainstream country in the mid-1990s. Any of his fans who wish he'll head back down the road to Nashville and the sound that made him a star are out of luck.

"I don't want to ever try to compete with Faith and Tim and Shania and all that," he says. "Waking up every day and worrying if George Strait's gonna jump me on the charts this week. I know I'm 48, and I'm probably not as CMT-pretty as some of these young cats.

"Those days are over, I've had my fill of that. That was part of my life that I don't want to have to go back and relive. I'm really content just making good music."

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