Ricky Skaggs Deserves the National Medal of Arts, Not Cancellation

photo: courtesy of Grand Ole Opry

I won’t sit here and in any way try to excuse or justify Ricky Skaggs going into the White House to accept an award when an article of impeachment was being voted upon on the floor of the United States House of Representatives against President Trump for helping to incite a violent and murderous mob to storm the U.S Capitol. Regardless of what someone feels politically, anyone could have told you it would have been a public relations nightmare to choose to participate in such an event, and it has been, and for very understandable and justifiable reasons. And it hasn’t just been bad for Ricky Skaggs, and Toby Keith, who also accepted a National Medal of Arts on Wednesday, January 13th at the White House. It’s been bad for country music.

When NBC White House corespondent Peter Alexander announced on Twitter, “Trump is currently in the Oval Office awarding the National Medal of Arts to singers Toby Keith and Ricky Skaggs, minutes after becoming the first president ever impeached twice,” it inexorably linked country music to the event, and forever. The way it was reported by numerous sources seemed to imply that the coinciding of the impeachment and the medal ceremony were purposeful, like this was Trump’s gambit to either answer the article of impeachment, diffuse the criticism he would face by doing something that would appeal to his base, or distract the public. In fact, this is how Rolling Stone and others reported it, as a “reaction” or a response to impeachment.

But that simply isn’t true. The event was supposed to happen in March. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the ceremony, and it had been rescheduled to January 13th in December, well before the Capitol riots, and well before there was any knowledge of impeachment proceedings. They also couldn’t delay the ceremony further, seeing how President Trump is coming to the end of his term.

Also, the portrayal by the press of Ricky Skaggs and Toby Keith being the sole recipients of medals in an intimate Oval Office gathering wasn’t true at all. The awarding of the National Medal of Arts actually happened in the much larger East Room—where these sort of events normally happen. Peter Alexander later clarified that. And Ricky Skaggs and Toby Keith weren’t the only ones honored. Opera singer and actress Mary Costa known for her role in Disney’s classic Sleeping Beauty also received a National Medal of Arts. So did Earl “Rusty” Powell III, who is the National Gallery for the Art’s longest-serving director.

Also honored at the ceremony was photographer and journalist Nick Ut. Among many other accolades, Ut is known for taking what is arguably the most famous wartime photo in history—1973’s “The Terror of War” depicting a naked 9-year-old Vietnamese girl running from her village, skin on fire, after an errant napalm strike by the South Vietnamese Army destroyed her home (see image below). The photograph went on to win the World Press Photo of the Year, and the Pulitzer Prize.

Kay Coles James and O. James Lighthizer were also honored with National Humanities medals. But of course, none of these honorees were even mentioned by the numerous reports who tied the medallion ceremony to impeachment, only Ricky Skaggs and Toby Keith were. Soon, it was an internet meme, and a viral story. For detractors of country music and President Trump, it seemed perfect. Of course Trump was giving medals to a couple of jingoistic country stars while being impeached. What else would he be doing? All the other details—like they were just two of the seven honorees, and the event had been scheduled for months—they just got in the way.

None of this wholly excuses the decision by Ricky Skaggs to attend the event. It still is a country star cavorting with a President accused of inciting acts of insurrection. New England Patriots football coach Bill Belichick was offered the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Trump recently, but refused the medal due to the fallout after the Capitol attack. Many believe Ricky Skaggs should have done the same thing.

The matter of Toby Keith is somewhat of a different case. Keith has made an entire career out of incensing his detractors with scandalous stances meant to fly in the face of political correctness. He once released a record called Shock’n Yall, after his controversial song “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” became a mega hit, and left many in the country (and in country music) embarrassed. But the more you get mad at Toby Keith for receiving a Medal for the Arts from President Trump, the more it plays into Toby Keith’s marketing. He doesn’t care. It will bolster the type of credibility Toby Keith craves, not hurt him.

Does Toby Keith even deserve such an award? This is a fair question. He did put 20 #1 singles on the charts during an eight year run, and had another seven #2’s during the same period. Like him or not, Toby Keith was mainstream country music in the aughts, and despite the bellicose and jingoistic anthems that have gone on to define him (and he’s been fine with letting that happen), like any artist, Toby Keith has also released quite a few quality songs. Some might be shocked to hear that Willie Nelson covered Toby Keith’s song “Don’t Let The Old Man In” on his last album, 2020’s Last Rose of Spring. But is Toby Keith’s legacy National Medal of Arts worthy? It’s at least debatable, with a strong list of names one could field who probably deserved it before he does.

But with Ricky Skaggs, there really is no debate. He deserves this recognition regardless of who is doling it out. Ricky Skaggs is a national treasure. He’s our generation’s Bill Monroe. From performing in Flatt & Scruggs at the age of seven, to joining Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys with Keith Whitley, to working with J.D. Crowe, Jerry Douglas, and the recently-passed Tony Rice in The New South, and being an important member of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band, the Ricky Skaggs contributions to bluegrass and country were massive even before he struck out as a solo artist, and became one of the biggest things in country music in the 80’s, all while being the primary understudy, and biggest champion of the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe.

Beyond his bluegrass and country career, the collaborative efforts of Ricky Skaggs speak to his big heart, open mind, and wide acceptance throughout modern music. From playing with Phish, releasing a duo album with Bruce Hornsby, to working with Barry Gibb, The Moody Blues, Ireland’s The Brock McGuire Band, Ry Cooder, to Steven Curtis Chapman, Ricky Skaggs has worked, and will work with anyone.

In other words, Ricky Skaggs is not Toby Keith. In recent years, there is no question Skaggs has leaned in more significantly to his faith, and even more so since having quadruple bypass surgery in June. His renewed faith has come out in his music, his actions, and his public face. He hasn’t been some outspoken Trump supporter. But Ricky Skaggs isn’t outspoken about much, except for his faith. In September, he participated in a Prayer March with Vice President Mike Pence at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. A couple of months ago Skaggs made a public post saying he was against abortion that got under some people’s skin. But some people trying to portray him as the sexist/racist/bigot archetype they love to assign to anyone they feel is on the other side of the political divide from themselves are overlooking a legacy of acceptance of everyone in country music, underscored by the collaborations he’s participated in, and other instances where Ricky Skaggs has stood up, and exuded character.

In 2014 after country artists Ty Herdon and Billy Gillman came out as gay, TMZ (during their short run of keeping a full staff in Nashville) ambushed Ricky Skaggs as he was walking into the Grand Ole Opry, hoping to trip him up, and to get him to say something disparaging about the two performers. But Ricky Skaggs didn’t take the bait. “That’s not my message, that’s not what my heart’s about,” Skaggs said. “I love everybody.” When pressed if he thought the country community would accept Herndon and Gillman, Skaggs responded, “I hope so.”

And none of this speaks to the tremendous amount of charitable work Ricky Skaggs has done throughout his life, or that if you speak to anyone, anyone about knowing, or meeting Ricky Skaggs, they’ll tell you what a kind-hearted man he is.

It’s just unfortunate to even see the talk of cancelling Ricky Skaggs, discounting his music, disinviting him from future events, simply because he decided to accept an award he wholeheartedly deserved, and was likely to get from whomever was President at this moment. Ricky Skaggs acknowledged he received the National Medal of Arts the next day, but hasn’t spoken publicly about his decision to accept the award. Don’t expect Ricky Skaggs to lash out at his detractors. Because that’s not what Ricky Skaggs does.

But Vietnamese-born photographer Nick Ut, who was wounded numerous times while covering the Vietnam War, has covered numerous other wars, covered the race riots in Los Angeles, the Black Lives Matter marches this summer, and other foreign and domestic uprisings, and who has arguably done more for the anti-war movement with one photograph than reams of written copy offered in the cause over a century, he did address accepting the National Medal of Arts from President Trump, even though he’s received not nearly the blowback of Ricky Skaggs, if any blowback at all.

Nick Ut said in part, “I’m sure a lot of people are very upset with me for accepting the medal. But it’s my personal life. I’m an old man now, so I’m happy the president gave me an award. For me, it’s more about receiving an award from a president … And I’m sure that in the next few days I will receive a lot of messages about accepting the award. But I don’t mind if anyone is angry because the award is for me personally, and it is from the President of the United States. He’s still the president. And this is America. We have freedom here. I never forget that.”

Music is something that can cross political divides and diffuse tensions between them when wielded properly. The music of Ricky Skaggs has specifically been a useful tool in that pursuit for half a century. If someone wants to be mad at Ricky Skaggs for participating in President Trump’s medallion ceremony during an impeachment proceeding, then be mad at him. And then forgive him. Because he’s Ricky Skaggs, and that’s what we do in liberal Democracies. We disagree, but ultimately, we come together.

That’s what President Trump did not do. He tried to divide and conquer, and his legacy will forever be sullied because of it. But the legacy of Ricky Skaggs shouldn’t be sullied just because he accepted an award he indisputably deserved, and had agreed to receive months before the current crisis. The music, and the man should speak for itself, and not be run through the current filter of roiling tensions, fueled by buzzy half-truths and outright lies to launch viral moments on social media. Otherwise, words can turn to anger, and anger into conflict, and conflict into war, and then you get images like the disturbing ones we saw from our Nation’s Capitol a few days ago. Or, the one below by National Medal for Arts recipient, Nick Ut.

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