It’s been 60 years since Ricky Skaggs started playing his mandolin, and nearly a half-century since the bluegrass iconoclast performed his first show.
Much like a professional athlete who has competed for many years, musicians suffer from wear and tear. Some recording artists have retired after trying to perform through injuries.
However, Skaggs, 65, elected to have biceps tendon surgery last August.
“If I wanted to continue performing, that’s what I was told that I needed to do,” Skaggs said by phone from his Nashville home.
“The good news is that it’s repaired and it’s fine,” he said. “I told my physical therapist that being a musician should be an Olympic event when I’m playing the really fast songs, which are so challenging.”
Skaggs will be working his right biceps and his repaired rotator cuffs when he performs with his band Kentucky Thunder on Aug. 8 at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City.
“Thanks to the surgery I feel great,” Skaggs said. “I don’t know what I would have done without it. I certainly played enough to cause the damage, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”
If Skaggs didn’t work so hard he wouldn’t have won 15 Grammy Awards, eight CMA Awards and two Dove Awards. The Country Music Hall of Famer also wouldn’t have had a dozen songs that topped the Bluegrass charts and landed in the National Fiddler Hall of Fame. His peers have noticed all of that hard work. His frequent collaborator, vocalist-pianist-songwriter Bruce Hornsby recently gushed when asked about Skaggs.
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“Ricky is a very open-minded musician, who is interested in a broad range of music,” Hornsby said. “It was never a challenge collaborating with him. ... With Ricky, there are no drums, but there’s a lot of rhythm going on. He generates some of the best mandolin chops ever, if not the best.”
Skaggs and Hornsby impressed with an eponymous bluegrass album in 2007. The album, which features traditional folk and bluegrass, includes a loose cover of Rick James’ “Super Freak.”
“I have so much fun with Bruce,” Skaggs said. “The thing I love about him is that he’s not afraid to take chances.”
The same can be said for Skaggs. A generation ago he blended bluegrass and country, which didn’t please his label, Epic.
“When I was really young and working with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, I learned a lot,” Skaggs said. “I learned with Emmy that you could add bluegrass instrumentation to a country song. But the folks at my record label weren’t crazy about that.
“I was told that bluegrass wouldn’t sell. I didn’t get it. I told them that there is bluegrass music in American Express and Toyota commercials. They had no defense for that. But it was obvious to me. If these people were putting bluegrass music in their commercials to try to grab ears, what about letting me make bluegrass records?”
Skaggs was right. Bluegrass has its audience. His 1981 album, “Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine,” combined bluegrass and roots rock, and made Skaggs a star.
“That album proved that I was onto something,” Skaggs said. “It was one of those wonderful victories. I helped change things. During the late ’70s, it was all about the urban cowboy. Some of us took music to a different place.”
WHAT: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder
WHERE: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
WHEN: 7 p.m. Aug. 8
TICKETS: $42 to $62; Englert Box Office, (319) 688-2653 or Englert.org
ARTIST’S WEBSITE: Rickyskaggs.com