Country Boy – Ricky Skaggs
I may look like a city slicker
shinin’ up through the shoes
underneath I’m just a cotton picker
pickin’ out a mess of blues
show me where I start
find a horse and cart
I’m just a country boy, country boy at heart…
I didn’t know what was going on. Late ’88. I seemed to have stopped being an actor for a while and become a writer – again. My play Sanctuary had won the Samuel Beckett Award and been picked up by an American theatre company from Washington D.C. called The No-Neck Monsters. I’d re-written it for the nation’s capital after a short but intense workshop period (will be another post) and a six-week writing period when I lived in Adams Morgan next door to a beautiful black/cherokee mix woman called Debbie who worked at the Pentagon. A gang of us went to a Baltimore Orioles game, and Debbie and I started to have an affair. I noticed that one of my actors – Paul – got annoyed about this – but – hey – that’s life. But once I’d delivered the play to director Gwen Wynne it was time to go back to England, London, and my single man status – although I was seeing someone there too…
A few weeks of rehearsal passed to which I was not invited (!) – and I came back for the thrilling opening night of Sanctuary D.C. as the play was now called – it was still a rap musical with beats, but now some of them had music too thanks to brilliant MD Scott Richards – and the final song had me in floods of tears. It was a spectacular experience watching the play again, and a kick in the teeth and guts to find that Debbie and Paul had become an item in my absence. Not only that but half the company had turned on me too, no doubt to bolster Paul’s righteous behaviour. Shocked, I slept with her one last time in my fury then cut and run for it. I went west. In a car.
Auto-Driveaway is a company which delivers cars for people, all over the US and Canada. They need drivers. I went to the office in D.C., showed my licence, gave them a $200 deposit and took a car for delivery. There was a vast choice – I chose Dallas, Texas. I had five days to get there and a full tank. After that ran out it was up to me, and I could deliver it empty. I quickly calcuated that if I drove like the clappers (what are they?) on the first two days, then I could stay in Nashville, Tennessee for two nights and one whole day. I should give this trip a name because it became epic and legendary for all the wrong reasons – but not this section. Driving over the Appalachians through West Virginia then looking down at the map to see your progress makes you realise how vast America is. I went to Dollywood – a brief detour (see My Pop Life #46) but it was closed. Back in the car and carry on. Radio stations come and go as you pass through towns on the Interstate Highway. No hitch-hikers anywhere, unlike 23 years earlier when Simon Korner and I had gone coast to coast and beyond with the mighty thumbs of yore. (See My Pop Life #30 for the early part of this trip on the same road). Just me and the road, hour after hour after hour. On the outskirts of Nashville I pick up a gospel radio station. Then a country station. Then there’s an ad (a commercial spot in the local vernacular) for The Grand Ole Opry. I immediately drive there and buy a ticket for that very night, check into my motel 6 and put on my best cowboy boots.
Grand Ole Opry is a nightly live radio show that goes out across the Nashville area, and beyond thanks to the internet. It takes place in a large auditorium which showcases country music, bluegrass, folk and has it’s own hall of fame. It started in 1928 as a barn dance and it is the longest-running radio show in America. Elvis Presley (My Pop Life #80) only played here once in 1954 and was told to go back to driving trucks. The Byrds played in 1968 when Gram Parsons was producing Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and got cat-called by the conservative redneck audience as “longhairs”. It’s an American Institution. The night I went (December 17th 1988) I was lucky enough to see the great bluegrass legend Bill Monroe hosting a segment of the 9.30pm show which also included country hall-of-fame members Porter Wagoner, Boxcar Willie, Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, Charlie Louvin and Ricky Skaggs. I was in country heaven.
Is it weird that at the same exact time that I was buying all the hip hop singles and LPs that were released, I was also busy discovering and digging on country music? Thanks to new releases by k.d.lang, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakum and Patty Loveless. Kenneth Cranham had fed my country fever with a C90, I was buying Dolly & Willie, NWA & Public Enemy, Hank and Reba. I was a schizo muso mentalist. Down to the record store, come home with EPMD and Nanci Griffith, Big Daddy Kane and The Judds (see My Pop Life #6). I didn’t see any contradiction there at all.
I didn’t care about Ricky’s image, he’s a genius
Ricky Skaggs blew my mind that night, among all those legendary performers, names who had been playing for decades – he was one of the youngest performers there. He played a song called Country Boy which still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end – his band nailing an impossibly fast bluegrass instrumental section that is quite literally Instru-Mental. When I listen to the song I inevitably think that the drummer must be playing too fast. He appears to be hurrying them along – the effect is quite odd. Very exciting music. Skaggs was at the forefront of a generation of younger musicians at the time who were taking music back to its roots, away from pop-country and the Nashville mainstream. Bluegrass was born in the United States from musical folk roots in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, with jazz influences from the South. Ricky Skaggs is a master of the genre. He has won multiple Grammys and is a demon on the mandolin and guitar.
I went out to Ernest Tubbs Music Store in Nashville the next morning and bought the seven-inch single of Country Boy. A treasured possession. I am a country boy after all, Cambridge -born and Sussex bred, strong in the arm and thick in the head, despite my education, I am pretty thick in the head. A young soul, picking things up along the way – oh ! is that how it works? Right…. very little natural wisdom. Almost a naïf at times. I love the country, the seasons changing, the leaves, the insects, particularly the butterflies, the birds, the streams, the mud, the flowers, the hedgerows, the farms, the wind, the sky. It’s my natural habitat. I am a country boy at heart! Take it away Ricky.
This is how I first experienced ‘Country Boy’ – live :