BILLY KENNEDY: Bluegrass icon Ricky Skaggs reflects on serious health scare

American country and Bluegrass music icon Ricky Skaggs has good reason to look back on the past year as a highly significant and critical period in his life and singing career.

Friday, 30th April 2021, 4:13 pm
Musician Ricky Skaggs

Ricky confesses healthwise he personally now feels “150 per cent” and is singing and mandolin pickin’ at his very best. However, the highly popular Kentucky-born entertainer has had time to reflect on the serious medical emergency he experienced last summer.

Then, Ricky had to have quadruple heart bypass surgery at Nashville’s Centenial medical centre after detecting mild symptoms over a period, like a tightness in the chest and shortness of breath.

Ricky’s concerns were well founded and, after a regular check-up and CT scan of his heart, doctors told him they urgently wanted to do an angiogram. Within a few days, he was in hospital undergoing important surgery that was to save his life.

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The surgery was a complete success, but Skaggs admits he was lucky.

If it was not for the US touring shut-downs due to the Covid pandemic that kept him and his band, Kentucky Thunder off the road, he confesses “something terrible could have happened”.

“I have thanked the Lord hundreds of times that I wasn’t out in the middle of Texas and other states on a tour bus, miles away from a hospital,” he confirms.

“It was a major blessing I didn’t have a heart attack. Nothing was hurt, and nothing was destroyed or irreparable.

“It was just by the mercy and grace of God that all of this happened in this way,” says Ricky, a deeply committed Christian.

Ricky, now 67, is back on the Nashville scene, actively recording and performing at selected shows, that include regular appearances at the Grand Ole Opry with his gospel singing wife Sharon White.

“I’m feeling much much better now. No more shortness of breath or struggling to sing my own songs. It was a close call that has ultimately reinforced my faith in God’s grace.”

He, however, cautions: “Don’t put off tomorrow what you can do today. That surgery gave me a brand-new heart. Not only a real heart, but a spiritual heart that has now been cleaned out, so I can hear Him better than ever before.”

Ricky is an American country singer with strong ties to Northern Ireland. His family roots on his Ferguson maternal side, he once told me in an interview, are Scots-Irish dating back to 18th century migration from Limavady and Donegal and he has relished his trips to Ulster for shows.

Since he began playing music as a child prodigy 60 years ago, Ricky has released more than 30 albums.

He had 12 No 1 hits and won 15 Grammy awards for his traditional music recordings, in country mainstream, Bluegrass and gospel genres.

In his autobiography, ‘Kentucky Traveler’, Ricky traces his life and times as a singer/songwriter and prolific instrumentalist; playing in his youth with Bluegrass legends Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, and also providing a highly descriptive history of country music, as told by himself, and from his experiences..

Ricky founded his own recording label Skaggs’ Family Records in 1997 and His latest release is ‘Hearts ,Like Ours’ duets with wife Sharon, the celebrated lead singer in the Whites’ family group on hand-picked country love songs.

The big chart-toppers for Ricky were recorded in the 1980s.

They include Crying My Heart Out Over You, I Don’t Care, I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could, Highway 40 Blues, Uncle Pen, Country Boy, and Cajun Moon.

Earlier, in the 1970s, Ricky played in Emmylou Harris’ band, helping to mould her new traditional country approach on landmark albums like Roses in the Snow. with renditions of classic ballads Together Again and Sweet Dreams.

Earlier this year, just before President Donald Trump stood down, Ricky received the National Medal of Arts award, the highest accolade given to artistes and arts patrons by the United States government.

Remarkably too, Ricky is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, The Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, Gospel Music Hall of Fame, National Fiddlers’ Hall of Fame and the Musicians’ Hall of Fame.

On the Nashville music scene today, Ricky Skaggs remains one of the most defining and iconic personalities - a classic performer who has contributed much to American country music.