Bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs brings some Kentucky Thunder to Hampton on Saturday night

Contact Reportermholtzclaw@dailypress.com

Ricky Skaggs is a living link to the history of bluegrass.

He was 6 years old when he sang on stage with Bill Monroe, who largely invented bluegrass music in the late 1930s and early '40s. A year later, he played mandolin on TV alongside the legendary Flatt and Scruggs. As a teen, he was a member of Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys.

Skaggs, who does a free show Saturday night to conclude this summer's Downtown Hampton Block Party series, is 61 now and is a 14-time Grammy winner. These days he is the guy who other artists ask to play with. But he still takes pride in carrying on the tradition of those who came before him.

"I'm the guy standing with one foot in the 1940s and another foot in 2015," he said in a phone interview earlier this week. "I'm able to bridge that gap between the old and the new. I think that's a great thing.

"What I'm finding with a lot of the new bluegrass bands is that they're not playing anything from the '40s and '50s. They don't know it or they don't like it. Basically, they're playing Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek on forward, and that's totally cool. But I'm glad and thankful to be able to be a carrier of this old music. I'm the keeper of the stories that those songs tell."

He has been one of the most influential performers in both country and bluegrass, and he has played and recorded with such diverse artists as Emmylou Harris, Bruce Hornsby, Jack White and Phish. During a performance at the Jamestown 2007 ceremonies, he effortlessly shared the stage with Chaka Khan. He toured earlier this year with guitar legend Ry Cooder.

"It's amazing to look at that list," he said. With pride, he adds, "And they called me. I didn't make the calls to them; they initiated the conversation. It's been amazing. A little old mandolin has taken me so many places around the world, to play for presidents and kings and princesses."

In trying to wrap up Skaggs' sprawling legacy, the All Music Guide writes: "Not only can he sing and pick with the best in progressive country, his broad and deep experience in traditional music separates him from the crowd. In the estimation of many, he is without peer as a combination vocalist and instrumentalist."

Skaggs started out on the mandolin but is also proficient on the banjo, guitar and fiddle. And by all accounts, he is playing as well as ever.

He gives much of the credit to his band, Kentucky Thunder, which will accompany him for the Hampton show Saturday night.

"I've always tried to surround myself with really great musicians," he said. "This band encourages me and pushes me to be a better player. It's a lot like the Bill Monroe band of '64 or '65, with Peter Rowan and Lamar Grier. That was a really young band, and they put a fire in him to try different things. It brought a youthfulness to the music, too.

"These guys in my band are young cats. But as good of players as they are, they still want to draw from the well that I draw from — the traditional bluegrass stuff of Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanleys. There's so much creativity in these guys."

Skaggs' most recent album, however, wasn't with Kentucky Thunder. "Hearts Like Ours," which cames out a year ago, is a long-awaited set a duets with his wife of 33 years, Sharon White. She, too, has deep roots in country music, having hit the scene with her family's band, The Whites, more than 40 years ago.

Skaggs and White scored a major country hit in 1987 with their duet "Love Can't Ever Get Better Than This," but the recent album was their first full-length collaboration.

So why did it take so long for this album to happen? Skaggs answers matter-of-factly.

"I personally feel that there's a right time to do anything," he said. "If we had done it back then in the '80s, when we were the Country Music Awards Duo of the Year, I don't think it would have been the same record that it is now. Back then we would have been trying to find something kind of like what we had a hit on.

"We were chasing radio back then, but it's not like that anymore. I'd rather be doing what we're doing now, doing with all the heart that we have, and doing it for our own record label. I'd rather be doing that than trying to chase radio and not making the kind of music that we really want to make in our hearts."

His wife won't be with him on Saturday night, but he is looking forward to laying down a lot of classic bluegrass with Kentucky Thunder.

He professes a great fondness for Hampton, noting that it was "a blast" to play with Hornsby at Bay Days a few years ago. Skaggs is happy to report that he has lost more than 70 pounds since then, having worked hard to establish a healthier diet.

On stage and off, he is a natural storyteller, and the tales from his life segue easily into the tales in the songs. That's the way Skaggs likes it.

"Music and life go hand in hand with me," he said.

Holtzclaw can be reached by phone at 757-928-6479. Follow his entertainment blog at dailypress.com/popcorn.

Info: hamptonblockparty.com

Downtown Hampton Block Party

Who: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, with additional performances by The Fuzz Band and Kasey Rae.

When: 6 p.m. Saturday.

Where; Downtown Hampton, between King and Queen streets.

Admission: Free.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette