Ricky Skaggs Lends Perspective to the IBMAs: As Host, Award-Winner and Label Head (to the Departing Del McCoury Band)
Ricky Skaggs was ubiquitous at the 13th Annual International Bluegrass Music Awards (IBMAs). He spent much of the evening on stage, co-hosting the event with Patty Loveless. In addition, he was an award recipient, taking home Instrumental Group of the Year honors with his band, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. Skaggs, who has received a number of individual awards over the years, took particular pleasure in sharing this one with his band. The artist, who is preparing to record a live album with Kentucky Thunder in Charleston, South Carolina, his first such effort in almost 20 years notes "It's gonna be a good record. The boys are playing really well right now and it's a good way to promote all these awards they've been winning, and let people know why."
The IBMA selection for Entertainer of the Year was Del McCoury Band, a designation which might be ever-so-slightly bittersweet for the musician’s Skaggs Family Records. Indeed, Skaggs Family Records’ Ceili Music is on the verge of losing Del McCoury Band to a major label and although the label’s top talent has yet to sign elsewhere, Skaggs talks as though the band’s bags are packed and out the door. "He’s no longer part of our record company," says Skaggs. "He’s gone on to hopefully bigger and better things." McCoury himself is caught off-guard by Skaggs’ assertion. Speaking from his home which coincidentally used to be Skaggs’ home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, McCoury says: "I haven’t talked to my manager yet today but I know we’ve had a lot of offers. We haven’t left yet," he continues. "We’re still here."
Stan Strickland, who holds the unique position of being manager of Del McCoury Band as well as co-owner of Skaggs Family Records, addresses the confusion a few weeks later: "As far as Del was concerned, until he made a decision to leave, he was still committed to Ceili." Although McCoury has yet to choose a new label (it’s been narrowed to three options), Strickland, who will continue to manage the band, concedes that Ceili Music is no longer in the running. "This may be the first contract bidding war in the history of bluegrass," says Strickland. "He is the most awarded artist in this genre and the only one who has proven he can reach beyond the boundaries of bluegrass." That versatility caught the attention of major record labels; labels that Skaggs Family Records can’t compete with when it comes to money and manpower.
What’s it like to host an award show like the IBMAs?
Easier to host than co-host. I love Patty [Loveless] and we get along very well and we love hanging with each other and being around. But any time you’re with a co-host, you never totally know what they’re going to do or how they’re going to read a line or say something. The same way, I’m sure there was pressure on her to have me there. It was a good show. I think we got along and we did it well but just on the years where I’ve hosted just by myself, it was a lot easier for me personally to host than it was to co-host.
You were recently awarded Instrumental Group of the Year at the IBMAs. What was your reaction upon learning that you had won and what is your attitude towards awards shows in general?
Well, at least it makes us feel like we’re not slipping. I think this is our fourth year to win that, maybe. Fourth or fifth I can’t remember. I think fourth, probably. It feels good. This is a great band and I’m real proud of these guys that are such great musicians. And they’re great guys to hang with on the road. Everyone gets along well and we make a lot of good music and we make a lot of people happy. It’s a blessing. It really is.
To me, I would rather win an award like this that includes the band as to win something like Male Vocalist or something like that. It’s more about the band this way to me than it is, you know, an individual just Ricky Skaggs. I’m glad to get em but winning or losing doesn’t cause us to do anything but dig in and work harder. You know, if we win something, we’re going to work hard to try to keep it. If we don’t win, we’re going to work hard to try to win it. It’d be great to win Entertainer of the Year. It’d be great to win Male Vocalist of the Year. We’re going to keep on working, keep on playing and really try to just keep making good music. That’s what it’s about for us.
What does it mean for you personally to see Del McCoury Band win Entertainer of the Year?
Well, we love Del a lot and he’s no longer part of our record company. He’s gone on to hopefully bigger and better things. We really are saddened to lose Del, but if they can do better for their career, then we wish them the best. I’m always proud of Del and the boys; we’re friends. I’ve known them a long time and it’s great to see them get a lot of good recognition. I just want good things to keep happening for them.
Where do you see Skaggs Family Records in the wake of his departure?
Well, I think Skaggs Family Records has done a lot to help him the last three years. I think they were doing minimal sales when they were on Rounder [Records] and I think we really took them as serious contenders out in the marketplace. And I think that was able to help them get more record sales and also get their price up to where they could afford some luxuries out on the road. And they all have houses, you know, they’re all doing well and we’re so proud of em. We’re proud to have gotten to be a part of their career for the last three years.
But we still have two great masters in Del & the Boys (2001) and The Family (1999). Those are good masters and that will stay with the company. So if they continue to grow it’ll be good for Skaggs Family as well because we’ll continue to sell their records and keep them out there where people can buy them. We’ll miss em. We’ll miss em at the label but we wish them the best.
How did his departure from Skaggs Family come about? What was the timing? What was the context?
Well, their contract was up and we made an offer to them to stay and they had a better offer on the table with another company, so I think that’s what they’ve decided to do there. It wasn’t any, like I said, any kind of ill feelings or anything like that it was just it’s business. They were out of the contract with us and they looked at their options and saw that they could do better somewhere else. There was a lot more Del McCoury’s got a lot bigger name now than he had three years ago. He’s a lot more viable product and a contender out there and so I think there’s a lot more record labels out there that was willing to make a deal with them.
Were you surprised by his decision?
No, no we weren’t. I think his management and advisors and all felt like this was probably a good move for them to move on to a bigger situation and a company that could hopefully do a whole lot more for them. We can only do so much as a small company. We have major distribution but we’re still like a farm team. We don’t have 25 years of cross-collateralization with all kinds of records like Sugar Hill [Records] and Rounder that’s been in the business for a long, long time. So, we have limited resources and we have to be fair to the other acts that’s on the label.
It’s not just about Del McCoury, you know what I mean? It’s about The Whites; it’s about Mountain Heart; it’s about Paul Brewster; it’s about Ricky Skaggs [laughs]. So, there’s other people to consider when you make an offer to try and get someone to stay. You have to make sure that you can fulfill that commitment as well as commitments to your other artists.
What do you see for the future of Skaggs Family Records?
Well, we’re looking at new artists all the time and we’re always looking to try to take some young talent and expand. We’re also looking at the roster that we have right now and seeing what we can do to help them and help make new records for them. The Whites is one we’re wanting to do another record on and we’ve got the new Mountain Heart record [No Other Way, 2002] that's just been released and it's really, really good getting a lot of great reviews and it's selling well for them. I think that album has a possibility of being Album of the Year. I really do think it's that quality and it's that good. It should certainly get nominated.