During this week’s CMA Awards, three new inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame will be recognized. Along with legendary fiddle player Johnny Gimble and singer-songwriter Dottie West, both being recognized posthumously, eight-time CMA award winner Ricky Skaggs will be honored and is also listed as a performer.
The 1982 Horizon Award winner, Skaggs was only the second artist to earn that honor, now called New Artist of the Year. Skaggs was also largely responsible for returning bluegrass music to the mainstream, a feat that earned him the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year title in 1985, by which time he had topped the Billboard country singles chart nine times.
While he was enjoying massive stardom throughout the U.S. in the early Eighties, the Kentucky-born musician had also earned a huge following in Europe, especially in the U.K. There, radio was less concerned with genre, and it’s also where the roots of bluegrass music originated before eventually reaching the Appalachians in the U.S. more than two centuries ago. One of Skaggs’ most memorable hits also has its roots in Britain, with a country-rock band called Heads Hands & Feet. A five-piece band that could today be considered quintessentially Americana, the group featured ace guitarist Albert Lee, with whom Skaggs would later have something in common: both would play in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, appearing on her albums from 1976’s Luxury Liner to 1981’s Cimmaron.
With 1982’s Highways & Heartaches, Skaggs scored the first of four consecutive Number One country albums, mixing traditional country and bluegrass and covering songwriters including Guy Clark (“Heartbroke”), Rodney Crowell (“One Way Rider”) and his idol, Bill Monroe (“Can’t You Hear Me Callin'”). In addition to the 1982 Horizon Award, Skaggs was named Male Vocalist of the Year and would, with his Ricky Skaggs Band, earn three consecutive Instrumental Group of the Year trophies. In 1985, he took the top honor as Entertainer of the Year, becoming the first bluegrass-leaning act to do so in the CMA’s near-20-year history. That same year, Skaggs and band traveled to England to record a live LP at the Dominion Theatre in London’s West End. Released in October 1985, Live in London featured a guest appearance from Englishman Elvis Costello on “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’,” a tune by bluegrass greats Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. The LP also featured songs from Skaggs’ previous albums, including “Country Boy” — the title cut from his 1984 album that was turned into a memorable music video. In the clip, Monroe plays Skaggs’ “Uncle Pen,” named for a Monroe song covered by Skaggs on 1983’s Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown, which features the guitar talents of Lee.
On Lee’s self-titled 1971 debut with Heads Hands & Feet, the fiery guitarist performs the original version of “Country Boy” — written with bandmates Tony Colton and Ray Smith — and released in the U.S. on a two-record debut album. Featuring a similarly played solo, the LP retains much of the acoustic country feel that found its way into Skaggs’ version. Both are performed at breakneck pace, even though lyrically the song extols the virtues of a more laid-back farm-oriented lifestyle.
During Skaggs’ 1986 tour of the U.K., he appeared on the BBC One chat show Wogan. Hosted by the late British radio and TV icon Sir Terry Wogan, the series had Skaggs and his band playing an absolutely exhilarating rendition of “Country Boy,” captured in the above clip. Led by Skaggs, wielding his acoustic guitar like a weapon on fire, the performance also spotlights each member of the band in solo turns just as expert and thrilling as his own.
The CMA Awards, featuring a performance from the new Hall of Fame member, air live Wednesday night from Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, beginning at 8:00 p.m. ET on ABC.