In the mid-Eighties, Ricky Skaggs married his brand of bluegrass — a modernized version that included drums, piano, and electric guitar — to the burgeoning music video medium. The result was one of country music’s all-time great videos, an irreverent clip that shined a light not only on Skaggs’ vibrant new style of country-bluegrass but also on a pillar of the bluegrass genre, Bill Monroe.
The song and video was “Country Boy,” the title track of Skaggs’ 1984 album. Shot in New York City in early 1985, the clip casts Skaggs as a big-city bank executive with a plush office who’s confronted by his disapproving Uncle Pen, played with great relish by Monroe. Barging into the office, case in hand, Uncle Pen accuses his nephew of “gettin’ way above your raisin’,” a reference to the old Flatt & Scruggs tune Skaggs covered three years earlier. Skaggs proceeds to pick up his acoustic guitar and says, “I’ll show ya,” as Monroe, the “Father of Bluegrass,” looks on in disbelief as a dancing secretary enters the room.
Next, the pair takes to the streets of the Big Apple where they encounter a group of breakdancers and a bagel-munching taxi driver played by then-New York mayor Ed Koch, who mouths the last line of the song’s chorus. In a subway car, Monroe, then a sprightly 73, shows off his clog-dancing skills, and the dancers spill out onto the subway platform, joined by a small ballet troupe and others moving along to the lively “Country Boy.” Among the dancers is Charlotte d’Amboise, who was appearing on Broadway at the time in Cats. As the clip finishes, a tuxedo-clad man and his date race to the platform, wondering if Skaggs has been spotted by the disinterested guy reading a newspaper. The bushy-haired man in the tux is actor and East Tennessee native David Keith, whose films up to that point included An Officer and a Gentleman and Firestarter. (He would appear in a later music video with Patty Loveless).
The “Country Boy” video was directed by Martin Kahan, who would go on to direct numerous clips, including “Chattahoochee” for Alan Jackson. In late 1985, the video was among the first-ever nominees for the CMA’s newly added Video of the Year award. It would lose that honor to Hank Williams Jr.’s even-more star-packed “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight,” but Skaggs could console himself with his win that year as CMA Entertainer of the Year.
The “Country Boy” video figures into the latest episode of Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary, which airs its final episode on Wednesday night on PBS.