I am interviewing Ricky Skaggs Saving Country Music for the third time. He is a Country Music Hall of Fame and Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame Inductee. He is known for carrying the pure mountain sound all of the way from Kentucky. However, this is our first time answering a difficult question.
The documentary “Saving Country Music”, by Ken Burns, received mixed reviews. Gabe Meline wrote a review titled “Country Music and Race” and pointed out that although the documentary was a strong one, it didn’t answer the question, Why is country music predominantly white. So I decided to ask Mr. Skaggs this question.
The documentary “Country Music” by Ken Burns sparked conversations about who should tell the story of country music. What did you think about the way it told the story of country-music?
SKAGGS – I thought it was the most compelling documentary on bluegrass and Saving Country Music history I have ever seen. While there are many documentaries about bluegrass, some of them focus more on the people. However, the origins of the music, its roots, and how it evolved from country music to become its own sound were beautifully captured. Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs are just a few of the people I associate with. It was a great book. It was almost as if they had written it, but they didn’t. Do you see what I’m referring to? We became close friends with Ken [Burns], Dayton [Duncan], and Julie [Dunfey], who were all the main producers, directors, and writers.
They would give us statistics on the show’s performance and how it performed, such things that most people wouldn’t be able to see. Just to let us as participants know how amazing the response was. In fact, he stated that January was the time they would broadcast it again. It still shocks me. It’s likely that many people will see it again this time, even if they didn’t initially see it. People saying “You have to see this” are a good way to get people to say, “You have to see it; you have to see it.”
It’s my favorite documentary. It could not have been better. It was difficult for them all, I’m certain. “Where do we end the documentary?” “What years do you stop it?” It’s easy to have a start, but so much has happened in country music since 1996. That’s why they ended the documentary. After Mr. Monroe’s death, it was in ’96 that I began playing bluegrass again. It was a crucial year for many of us. It was an emotional time for many, as he passed away, and it was the passing of a great leader, great musician, and father of bluegrass. But it was also a new beginning.
The film about saving country music beginning may not be liked by African Americans
SKAGGS : I believe the African American community was well represented. You can see it if you are a musician. You may also say “Well, we were left out.” I disagree. I disagree. They were listening. Ray Charles’s journey into country music, and how it really touched many people. Charley Pride, DeFord Baily… I feel they were the ones who showed the banjo. They demonstrated how vital the African American community was for the founding of country music and its spirit. …
Saving Country Music was extremely well represented by females. It wasn’t just the music of white men. It was almost like gumbo. People from Ireland and Scotland brought their instruments up into the mountains. The French brought music into Canada and Louisiana in the 1800s, late 1700s. It is almost like a gumbo, considering all the influences. Gumbo is a stew or soup made with a variety of ingredients. You can have the whole thing if you only use a small amount of each ingredient.
It is true, however, that country music is predominantly white.
SKAGGS: Well, it’s nobody’s fault
How can you explain it? Many people wonder, “Why is it mostly white?” This is because it seems like it was designed that way by the music industry and the way the radio would play certain songs while ignoring others.
SKAGGS: The only thing I can think of is that Charley Pride’s entry into Saving Country Music opened up the doors for anyone else who wants to pursue that style of music. You have Darius Rucker, who is now a member the Grand Ole Opry. He was also with Hootie & the Blowfish. We love him and are proud to have him as a member the Opry. … I don’t believe there are gatekeepers trying… to keep… doing colour checks. That’s not what I believe. I have never heard African Americans talk about such a thing. It seems like a strange question.