When Ricky Skaggs and his wife Sharon White bested nominees like Dan Seals and Marie Osmond and Gary Morris and Crystal Gayle to claim the 1987 CMA Vocal Duo of the Year award for their song “Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This,” both fans and industry gatekeepers were expecting the pair to follow up with an entire album of tasty duets. Surprisingly, that didn’t happen. . .until now. On September 30th Hearts Like Ours releases on Skaggs Family Records, and though it was a long, long time coming, the country-bluegrass couple says it was worth the wait.
“The obvious thing in 1987, when we had Duo of the Year, was to build on that and take advantage of it,” says Skaggs seated close to his wife in their Hendersonville, Tennessee, office. “But looking back at it now, we’d been married for about six years at that time, and as driven as we both were. . .we would have looked at a duet project to try to sell records and we would have done it trying to find songs that radio would have played, which would have limited so many of the songs.”
Instead of crafting a calculated effort geared toward the radio expectations of that era, the couple took their time and created a labor of love. Now married for 33 years with two grown children, Hearts Like Ours is a deeply textured collection of songs buoyed by years of shared experience. “At times I just didn’t think it would ever happen,” admits White. “I thought it was a dream that would never come true.”
Raising their children, Molly and Luke, and tending separate successful careers kept Skaggs and White busy and relegated any duets album to the back burner. White has long performed with her father, Buck, and sister, Cheryl, as the Whites. Well known for such hits as “You Put the Blue in Me,” “Hangin’ Around” and “Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling,” the trio are perennial favorites at the Grand Ole Opry and appeared in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the 2000 film that reignited interest in old-timey country sounds. Skaggs has won numerous awards, among them 14 Grammys, 11 IBMA Awards and eight CMAs, including Entertainer of the Year in 1985. After his streak of 12 Number One singles ended at country radio with 1989’s “Lovin’ Only Me,” the Kentucky native returned to his bluegrass roots and has faithfully carried the torch passed to him by the legendary Bill Monroe.
So what was the catalyst to finally record their long-awaited collaboration album? “We were booked to do a couples event,” White explains. “They wanted some singers to do music and give testimony. So we went in and cut five songs, and the idea was we’d have some tracks [to use at the event]. We got pretty deep into it and then the event was cancelled, but it was such an enjoyable experience we decided to finish and record a whole CD.”
Committed to his faith, Skaggs chalks it all up to God’s plan and White agrees. “It’s the timing of God. If we’d done this 25 years ago, our heads weren’t in the same place. Our hearts weren’t in the same place,” she says. “This time we were able to enjoy every bit of it. I don’t know whether anyone else is going to enjoy it, but we did. And that’s the biggest blessing of all. We didn’t feel the pressure to try to do something that radio would pick up or any of that. We just wanted to do something that expressed our hearts.”
Skaggs and White co-produced the album, and the 13-song set finds them reviving “Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This” as well as cutting two songs by their friends Connie Smith and Marty Stuart, the title track and the opening number “I Run to You.” Another highlight on the record is “When I’m Good and Gone,” written by Buddy Jewell and Leslie Satcher. White sings lead on the poignant ballad about leaving behind a legacy of love when this life is over. “You want to leave something good behind. You want to live a good life so the preacher won’t have to lie about you at your funeral,” Skaggs says grinning.
Skaggs commends White’s ability to find great songs and relied heavily on her to help gather material for the project. Neither of them wrote anything for this record, but say they hope to next time. “Me and Gordon [Kennedy] wrote, ‘You Can’t Hurt Ham’ for Music to My Ears so I feel like if I can write a song about ham I sure can write a song about love,” Skaggs says with a laugh. “Hopefully I’m going to.”
One of the songs on the album that has special significance to the couple is the classic “If Needed You,” penned by the late Townes Van Zandt. A well-known hit for Emmylou Harris and Don Williams, Skaggs and White sang it to each other on their wedding day.
“When we went to talk to our pastor about the ceremony, he said, ‘Are you all familiar with the unity candle?'” White recalls. “He said, ‘What if you all did it with songs?’ He sings a song to you. You sing a song to him, and then you sing one together.’ We said, ‘Yes! We like that!’
Skaggs offered the Ronnie Milsap hit “What a Difference You Made in My Life,” White sang the Williams’ gem “Till the Rivers All Run Dry” and then they harmonized on “If I Needed You” together. “That’s the first duet we ever sang,” White says, smiling at Skaggs. “We thought it was going to be a piece of cake, but oh my gosh. We were both so emotional we were sniffling a little bit.”
The couple recently sang “Home Is Wherever You Are” from the new album when a friend’s daughter married. After the ceremony, the newlyweds asked them for advice on maintaining a long, happy union. “I said, ‘I want you always to remember what made you fall in love with him in the first place,'” White relates. “You fell in love with him the way he is for a reason. You were drawn to him. Celebrate that and be thankful for that and don’t be trying to change each other. And Number Two: be quick to forgive and be quick to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ because none of us are perfect.”
Faith and love are the foundation of the couple’s marriage and they are reflected throughout the tracks on Hearts Like Ours. “I don’t think we intentionally said, ‘We’re going to cut this kind of song,'” White says, “but when we looked at it in the end I said, ‘This is a little heavy on the love songs, honey.’ And he just laughed and said, ‘What else are we going to do?’ It’s where our heads and hearts are.”