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I sweat a lot at home practicing! [Laughs]
I doubt that very much! Your mandolin tone is chimey, it has that church bell vibe, but your Tele sound was so soft and buttery—how did you develop that tone?
Well, I really wasn’t even around electric guitar players. There was a friend of mine who had a Silvertone guitar with a Bigsby tailpiece on it, and I would borrow that guitar and bring it to my house and play Ventures songs on it. I had very, very limited experience with electric instruments back in my early childhood. But when I started working with Emmylou [Harris], Albert Lee was in the band, and of course James Burton had recorded a lot of her stuff and had been in her band before that. So when I started travelling with Emmylou, I was really getting to watch Albert a lot. His tone is in his hands, though—he could play through the smallest Princeton, or he could play through a Fender Dual Reverb and it would sound the same. His tone is just in his right hand, he’s got great sounding hands, and so does James. Amps work for them, but it’s really all in the hands.
And that’s really funny, because I asked Mr. Monroe one time why his mandolin sounded so good and he stuck his hands out and said, “Ah, these hands.” [Laughs] But when I started my own band, I hired a great guitar player name of Ray Flacke. I had met Ray over in England when I was with Emmylou. He was a friend of Albert’s, and he was playing an old Lab Series. I think it had one 15 in it, the L9 I believe— it had this little compression knob. When he left the band we needed a guitar player, and I wanted to hire somebody. I couldn’t hire Albert Lee because he was working with Clapton, and I couldn’t afford James Burton. We had two weeks worth of touring to do up in Canada, and so my wife Sharon said, “Ricky, I’ve heard you play electric guitar. I know you can do this.”
Well, I had a Telecaster-style guitar that Joe Glaser had built me, and it had a string bender in it, ‘cause I loved that string bender sound that Albert had when he played on some of my early records—like “Head Over Heels In Love With You” from the Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown record. I set down with my records and started learning Ray’s solos, like “Highway 40 Blues,” and the intro to “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown” that Albert had played on. I learned the intros and turnarounds to about 10 or 15 songs that really had to have that electric guitar sound or we wouldn’t be able to be true to the song so much.
Within a week I had learned these solos good enough to go out and do that two-week tour, and I tell you what, I was scared to death! Walking out there plugged in to an amp… I had some L9s at the warehouse, so going on the road, taking that Fender guitar, pluggin’ in and bein’ the electric guitar player for the band… I said “What are you doin’? This is stupid! This is suicide! Here’s fifteen-thousand people who are gonna know the difference— they’re gonna know you’re green as a gourd.” So I went out there and played “Honey Open that Door,” and I didn’t blow it! I made it! I played the solo and the crowd cheered, and I thought, “Oh my God, I made it through that... thank you God!” So when it come time to kick off “Highway 40 Blues” with the steel guitar player and all [sings intro], I made it through that. For two weeks I got to play every night, and then I did that for probably three or four years before I hired a full-time electric guitar player for the band, so I could just focus again on singin’ and playin’ the acoustic guitar… it’s really hard to play the backup fills that the guitar needed to play while I was singing. So, going from mandolin to Tele was quite a challenge but I loved it—I really did. I miss it, I miss playing the electric guitar.
But we have just released some of my old country hits from CBS/Epic, and we’re re-releasing all of them on Skaggs Family Records, so I’m probably going to end up draggin’ my ‘57 Tele out and startin’ to play it again, and I’m lookin’ forward to that, I think it’ll be fun. We’ll still be doing bluegrass... but instead of doing bluegrass as part of the country show, we’re gonna do some country as part of a bluegrass show!
Let’s talk about recording. You’ve gone from the simple, standing-around-a-micwith- four-guys-completely-live, to major productions in big studios with every kind of gear imaginable. How has that whole spectrum influenced the way you record now?
Well, I have learned a lot over many years of recording. I’ve done it both ways. I first started recording with Ralph Stanley when I was 16. We went direct to quarter-inch tape, direct to stereo. If we got a good take, then that was the cut; if we messed up, we’d do it over. But we wouldn’t labor over it—and the band was good, especially Ralph and the guys. Keith [Whitley] and I was the add-ons, the new kids, so God help us to not mess up! I guess once I got with Boone Creek, our music was changing and evolving, and we started doing more overdubs there. We were wanting more separation, so that if someone did mess something up, we could go back and fix it without destroying the integrity of the track.
I guess it was probably when I went with Emmylou Harris that I started growing as a producer and studio musician. Emmylou’s husband at the time, Brian Ahern, was a brilliant producer. I learned so much from him, watching what he did. It wasn’t that he was telling me stuff, I was just always watchin’ and trying to learn why he made this choice, why he made this decision musically. He was like a P.T. Barnum, calling it out, “You play this… you play this… if you play this together with him, it’ll create this sound, and drums you stop here and go to high-hat…” I was learning so much from him, musically and sonically, the mics he was using and that kind of thing.
But after leaving Emmylou, I came to Nashville. I had produced all this music for Sugar Hill Records in NC, a small indie label. I was sittin’ on an airplane next to a major label exec, and I played him some of my stuff ‘cause he asked to hear it, and he flipped out. He played it for the execs at Capitol in Nashville, and they loved it, but the guy in Los Angeles who had to sign off didn’t like it. So, the guy from the Nashville Capitol office made one phone call to Rick Blackburn at Epic. And so I drive down the street half a block and walk in at Epic and play the stuff for him. He said, “Who produced that?” “I did.” “It’s great. I love it.” I said, “That’s part of the deal. I want to be able to produce my own music, if that’s possible.” Here was this brand new, unproven, unheard-of artist, and so I had to make good records—I knew I had to. They had to sound good, they had to work good, they had to come in on budget and on time, so I had to grow up pretty quick.