How long have you been performing, and what led you to a life as a musician?
My dad bought me a mandolin when I was five. But I had been singing for a couple years before that. My first national exposure was working with Ralph Stanley. He was a great boss and a great teacher. It would be like a physics or math student being tutored by Einstein. In my later years, I got to spend quite a bit of time with Bill Monroe during the last 10 years of his life. You had to have your tape recorder going in your brain all the time.
What other musicians, groups, musical styles, or music from different cultures influence your work?
Celtic music, definitely. It's really a cousin to bluegrass, because as this Scottish and Irish music filtered through Virginia and the Appalachian Mountains and mixed with local folklore and lyrics, it became bluegrass. Mr. Monroe used to talk about "the ancient tones," those melodies that came from across the Atlantic. In 1999, I was able to take part in a television special filmed for the BBC in which we examined the roots of this music and we released a soundtrack album on the Ceili Music label, part of Skaggs Family Records.
Do you have a current project or album you are excited about working on?
I finally had the opportunity to pay tribute to Mr. Monroe with an album called Big Mon. It's a great record and we're very excited about it. When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, all these rock artists were coming up to me telling me how much they loved Mr. Monroe and how much they were inspired by his music and his singing style and his playing and his songwriting. They see it at the roots of their music-Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley-all spoke openly of their admiration for Bill Monroe. To them, he played and sang with a rock and roll attitude. That respect allowed us to pull in artists like John Fogerty, Bruce Hornsby, and Joan Osborne as well as The Dixie Chicks, Dolly Parton, and Patty Loveless. Marty Stuart says this, and I agree, that Bill Monroe was the most important musician to ever come to Nashville. Very few people have ever started a style of music that a whole country can call its own.
What are your goals and aspirations for your music over the next five years?
Basically, since I was five years old-41 years now-I've been playing this music and trying to learn more about it and teach people more about it. We're going to continue to work the bars and clubs and casinos. We're not just going to play this music in churches and concert halls. One of the most stunning things I ever heard was the sound of silence in a casino in Saskatchewan when we played "Are You Afraid to Die?"-just stone cold silence. It's amazing to see the hunger for the Gospel. And gospel music is such a part of the fabric of bluegrass music-whether or not people believe, they expect to hear gospel songs in our shows.
Do you have a best performance moment you could share?
If there was one incident that I could cite as being the thing that pointed me toward what my life's work would be, it was probably the night when I was six years old and Bill Monroe invited me on stage. He strapped his big old mandolin on my shoulders and my spirit erupted deep inside. It was much, much deeper than my young mind could comprehend.
What do you see as the power of music in society?
It's absolutely one of most influential things in our society. It's a way to communicate, maybe the most universal and effective way. It crosses cultural and ethnic and racial boundaries and introduces people to new aspects of life and culture that they way never have imagined. Look at our current tour with The Dixie Chicks, for example. It may be 20 years from now before the girls realize how important it was to have a bluegrass band open for them on this tour. How important it was to have a band playing this type of music for the kids that also go and see Britney Spears and Christina Aguilara and N'Sync. I think someday The Dixie Chicks will look back and see just how right they were to be able to introduce bluegrass to that age group. We're laying the groundwork for the future of the music.
How has your career as a musician affected your private life?
I'd say the effects have only been positive. It's easy for us to step away from the business side of the music industry. We play music as a family. Music is so much a part of all our lives, at home and at church. My son Luke is 11 and he's playing the fiddle. He loves Irish and Scottish music. My daughter Molly is playing piano and singing in church and was in the marching band when she was in public school. My wife Sharon is home schooling them now.
If you could choose a different career, what would you do?
I suppose something in the ministry, helping people in that way. If it were a vocation, I guess photography. I've got a great interest in photography.
What advice could you give to students who are interested in pursuing a career like yours?
The advice I'd give any parent or child is for moms and dads to get into a church themselves and instill that in their kids and give them something way beyond themselves-real faith. I'm not trying to be religious; I'm not trying to be a preacher. I'm just asking what's solid in your life? If you have that faith in your heart, you have won the greatest battle you'll ever face in your life-the battle of doubt. Then when a gift like music or sports comes along, you can excel and know that you're not just playing for yourself. Most kids I talk to are willing to sacrifice their soul basically to have the world acknowledge their gift. But gifts are not given for that reason.
What was your favorite subject in school and why?
I loved history. So much of music is built on what has come before that you can't help but become somewhat interested by history, if you're serious about music at all.