When 15-time Grammy winner Ricky Skaggs takes the stage at the Michigan Theater on May 25, it will be the latest in a string of memorable concerts he has given in Ann Arbor, including the Doc Watson 95th birthday celebration at The Ark in 2018, and the 39th Ann Arbor Folk Festival in 2016.
But Skaggs’ connection to this corner of Michigan goes back almost 50 years to 1971, when the then 17-year-old mandolin prodigy recorded the album Sing Michigan Bluegrass at the Jessup Recording Studio in Jackson with Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys.
The late Ralph Stanley, who would have turned 92 years old on Feb. 25, helped create the bluegrass genre with his brother Carter in the 1940s and 50s, although he described their style as “Old Time Country” music.
He won a legion of new fans in 2000 with his haunting a capella version of the Appalachian dirge Oh Death, featured in the Coen brothers’ movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? But one of his greatest legacies is helping launch the careers of Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley. Fate – and a flat tire – brought them together.
In the spring of 1970, just over a year before the Jackson sessions, Skaggs and his best friend Whitley convinced Skaggs’ father to drive them from their homes in Kentucky to see Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys perform in Fort Gay, West Virginia.
While the crowd grew restless waiting for the show, the club’s owner came on stage and announced that Stanley had called from a pay phone to say their bus was on the side of the road with a blown tire. They would be late. How late was anyone’s guess but the owner knew Skaggs and Whitley could pick, so he invited the two teens and Skaggs' father to tide the crowd over with some bluegrass.
What no one expected to hear was two under-age singers and pickers who sound so much like the Stanley Brothers that it impressed even Ralph Stanley, who arrived mid-way through their set.
With their impromptu gig over, Stanley took the nervous teens aside, “You boys did a fine job. You sound like me and Carter when we were young. You brought back a lot of old memories of when we as first gettin’ started.”
Skaggs recalled the night in his autobiography “Kentucky Traveler.”
“That night was one of those defining moments you have in your life. When Ralph walked into that beer joint and saw us for the first time, signing out of the Stanley Brothers song book chapter and verse, he saw the future generation keeping his music alive, and he saw the future.”
Not long after, both Skaggs and Whitley officially joined The Clinch Mountain Boys and they soon found themselves in Jackson at the Jessup studio, which was owned by Glenn Jessup, who passed way in 2011 at age 95.
The album is seen as a nod to displaced southerners working in Michigan’s auto industry, in part because Stanley himself worked in a Ford Motor Company plant in the 1950s. It also includes several tracks written by Gene Duty, who lived in Detroit at the time. The record is still available on CD.
Skaggs left The Clinch Mountain Boys in 1974 and went on to a remarkable career that has included time in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and J. D. Crowe & The New South (with Tony Rice and Jerry Douglas).
In the 1980s, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, the youngest person to ever be inducted at that time, and he was the Country Music Association (CMA) "Entertainer of the Year" in 1985. In 2018, he was inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Ricky Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder will be live at The Michigan Theater on Saturday, May 25, with special guests The Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.com.