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On the Scene: Skaggs carries flame for bluegrass

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COUNTRY BLUEGRASS: The shelf is full.

He's got Grammys, Country Music Association awards and International Bluegrass Music Association awards. Ricky Skaggs, a legendary country and bluegrass musician, keeps adding to his collection but he doesn't revel in the trophies.

"Too much pride in the wrong thing is bad," he said. "I think those things are great to have, but when those things have you, it's like money. When money has you and your career has you and these awards have you, that's when it's bad.

"That's when you miss the whole purpose."

The purpose of playing, for Skaggs, is to share good music and good times, and that's what he'll do when he plays two shows at the Newberry Opera House Saturday with his touring band Kentucky Thunder.

Skaggs, who at 5 played mandolin on stage with one of bluegrass' founding fathers, Bill Monroe, comes from a time when a performer smiling on stage was happenstance. In the '80s, when Skaggs was winning CMAs - entertainer of the year, male vocalist, instrumental group and vocal duo with wife, Sharon White, - the genre was about performance.

It's a wonder he can recognize country music now.

"It's so image driven today, much more so than it was anytime in my career," he said. "When the video channels came out, the music took a different look. It wasn't so much about talent."

Bluegrass is a genre that still applauds talent over looks, even as the players on bluegrass stages are getting younger and, some might argue, better looking.

"I'm really glad to see it happen," said Skaggs, who is on the old-timey music curriculum board at Berklee College of Music, where students can get a degree in banjo and mandolin.

Skaggs returned to bluegrass in the mid '90s. It was like he answered a calling to come back. Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder have dominated the IBMA instrumental group category since.

"I'm really happy just knowing that I'm passing down music that's worthy," Skaggs said. "That music has a long bloodline, a long history."

A history that's intertwined with country music.

"Back in the days, bluegrass wasn't called bluegrass. It was called hillbilly music," said Skaggs, who is something of a historian. (If you've heard "Honoring The Fathers Of Bluegrass 1946 & 47," you know that.) "Back in the day, country music wasn't called country music. It was hillbilly music."

That's when hillbilly wasn't a derogatory word. That's a time when Monroe and Patsy Cline would be played on the same genreless station, a time before they had award shows and video channels.

Anybody else longing for the good old days?

The opera house is at 1201 McKibben St., Newberry. $35 for the 3 p.m. show and $40 for the 8 p.m. concert; (803) 276-6264

FAMILY GATHERING: Before leaving for "The Guthrie Family Rides Again Tour," which stops at the Newberry Opera House Monday, Sarah Lee Guthrie had a long list to complete.

She had to help with a Valentine's Day Haiti benefit show that her husband, Johnny Irion, put together in less than two weeks. The sold-out show featured Tift Merritt and The Mammals, who got back together for one show, among others.

Then there was shopping Guthrie and Irion's new album, "Bright Examples," as well as the new construction on the timber frame cabin in Washington, Mass., that the former West Columbia residents built a few years ago. They want to open their home for songwriters.

"I've never seen him happier," Sarah Lee said of the always-busy Irion. "He just thrives of more things to do. He's got like seven songs he wants to record before he leaves. Thank God we don't have a TV."

The family tour, headlined by Sarah Lee's father, Arlo Guthrie, isn't the reunion that it once was since Sarah Lee, Irion and their two daughters live just a few miles away from Guthrie. But it will still be memorable.

"It's really special in that we all know it might not happen again," she said.

Sarah Lee and Irion are getting comfortable with the idea of being on the road this year. On off days of this tour, they'll do some shows of music from "Go Waggaloo," the family CD of children's songs released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings last year. And later this year, they'll tour behind "Bright Examples," the disc featuring Vetiver, the folk-pop band signed to Sub Pop Records, as their backing band.

"It was one of the coolest recording sessions I've been a part of because everybody played at the same time," Sarah Lee said.

There were no overdubs. The Hammond organ, piano, wurlitizer, several guitars and vocals were recorded at the same time at a studio in Woodstock, N.Y.

"That's what I love about being a duo," she said. "We can pretty much pick any band that we want to sound like and ask them to play on our record and become a part of something cooler than we could've done by ourselves."

It's all about family for the Guthries, including teaching. Gathering schoolwork, that's another thing Sarah Lee had to do before she left on the tour.

"We call it road schooling," she said. "We get (to the venue) and sit the kids down with their books and a sandwich. We're all helping."

Some of the best lessons are learned outside of the home.

The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets cost $37.50.