DATE July 21, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Ricky Skaggs discusses his musical career and his new
album "The Three Pickers" with Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Three of the top names in bluegrass--Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and Ricky
Skaggs--perform together on the new CD "The Three Pickers." The CD is a
recording of a concert together which will be broadcast as a PBS special on
July 28th. We'll feature an interview with Earl Scruggs sometime within the
next few days. Today we hear from mandolin player and singer Ricky Skaggs.
He started off in bluegrass as a child. He sat in with Bill Monroe and Earl
Scruggs. In 1970, at the age of 15, he joined Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain
Boys. He later joined The Country Gentlemen and J.D. Crowe & The New South,
then formed his own band, Boone Creek. Skaggs left the band to back up singer
In the early 1980s, he changed direction and became one of the most successful
of the new traditional country artists. He had 10 number-one country hits
between 1982 and '86. He won the Country Music Association's Entertainer of
the Year award in 1985. In the mid-'90s, Ricky Skaggs returned to bluegrass
and has been one of the leaders of its revival.
Let's start with a track from the new CD "The Three Pickers" with Ricky Skaggs
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. RICKY SKAGGS: (Singing) Oft I sang for my friends when death's cold hand
I see. When I reach my journey's end, who will sing one song for me?
Mr. SKAGGS, Mr. DOC WATSON and Mr. EARL SCRUGGS: (Singing) I wonder who will
sing for me. When I'm called to cross that silent sea, who will sing for me?
GROSS That's Ricky Skaggs with Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson from the new CD
"The Three Pickers."
Ricky Skaggs, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. SKAGGS: Great to be with you.
GROSS: You've known Earl Scruggs for a really long time, huh?
Mr. SKAGGS: A really long time.
GROSS: Now you played with him when you were seven back in 1961. How did you
get to play with him?
Mr. SKAGGS: My father never met a stranger, and we had met the backstage
guard--his name was Mr. Bell(ph) at the Grand Ole Opry, which was down at the
Ryman Auditorium in those days. And Mr. Bell said, `OK, I'll let you all
backstage but, you know, you've got to be nice and, you know, don't be
bothering people, don't bug 'em and that kind of thing.' And my dad was always
trying to get me noticed, you know, by influential people. And so Earl
Scruggs just happened to walk by, and I was standing there playing the
mandolin. And he heard me play, and he got to talking to my dad and said,
`Well, bring this little boy down next week for an audition on our television
show, the Martha White television show.' And so we did and I got the audition,
won that, and they set a date for me to come to the studio and they record it,
you know, the next time they were going to be recording. I mean it was as
simple as that. It's pretty amazing to think that it was that simple but it
really, really was. It was just one of those magic moments in time that
really did happen.
GROSS: So what did Earl Scruggs mean to you, and his partner Lester Flatt,
when you were seven?
Mr. SKAGGS: Well, you know, they were so popular, they were such a big
group. I mean, they were so famous and that was even before "The Beverly
Hillbillies," and, you know, they were "Grand Ole Opry" stars. You know, I
got to play with Bill Monroe when I was six years old up in Kentucky. He came
to our hometown and I got to be on stage with him and so I had a little taste
of, you know, being around a star. But they were just so inspirational; they
had such great music; they had a great band. The songs they sang were really,
really good. I really loved the gospel songs that they sang, they really had
a great quartet. And just, Earl's banjo playing was so good and it just
inspired me to be good on the mandolin. I mean I wanted to be good like Bill
Monroe and Earl Scruggs and, you know, Benny Martin which was a wonderful
fiddle player that used to play with Flatt and Scruggs years ago. And Paul
Warren and Josh Graves and those great players that they had in the band at
different times. So they were very inspirational. I guess, personally, you
know, they didn't take me on the road with them or anything like that, you
know, but they were always nice to me and treated me with respect, you know,
and encouraged me, you know. You know, `this boy can go places, Mr. Skaggs,'
you know, `you ought to keep that,' you know, that kind of thing, with my dad.
You know, so they were wonderful people and I just, you know, it was just
great to get to know them through the years.
Lester Flatt passed away, you know, about 10 years ago and so it's unfortunate
that he's not around to enjoy all this great thing that's going on with
bluegrass and roots music these days.
GROSS: So you actually performed with Bill Monroe before performing with
Flatt and Scruggs. How did you get to play with Bill Monroe's band?
Mr. SKAGGS: Well, he came to Martha, Kentucky, which is a little small town
close to Blaine, Kentucky, where I was raised and they played the high school
and we--my mom and dad and I and my brothers and sister went to see them. And
we watched them unload and--man, that was the coolest thing to see them get
out of this big stretch limousine that they were riding in. It looked like
they had just walked out of the dry cleaners; there wasn't a wrinkle anywhere,
you know. They looked so stinkin' cool. And they got the bass fiddle off the
roof top and they set up a little sound system and we went in and sat down and
listened to them play. And about 20 or 30 minutes into the show some of the
neighbors in the hood started, you know, requesting, `let little Ricky Skaggs
get up and sing,' you know. And I see it in my own life now, you know, where
people start, you know, making those kind of requests, you know, when I'm out
on the road playing now. But after, you know, 10 or 15 minutes of that why,
finally Mr. Monroe said, `well, where's he at,' you know, and he didn't have
any idea who little Ricky Skaggs was. So I come walking up to the front of
the stage and he reaches down and picks me up and sets me on the stage and
says, `what do you play, boy?' And I said, `well, I play the mandolin, sir.'
So he took his mandolin off of his shoulder and wrapped it around, you know,
made the strap fit me, you know, and I stood there and sang a Bob and Sonny
Osborne song called "Ruby (Are You Mad at Your Man)." For a six year old to be
singing a song like that, you know, but it was the biggest thing that had ever
happened, you know, to me in my life at that time. Being six years old and
getting to play with the Father of Bluegrass Music, Bill Monroe.
GROSS: So were you good? Were you really good?
Mr. SKAGGS: You know, Terry, it's really funny. I've got tapes that I'm so
thankful that my father made--old reel-to-reel tapes. I've got a ton of those
things at home. He kept those like fine diamonds, I mean he kept them, you
know, in a box and was very, very careful of them, you know. And I've got a
bunch of those things at home and it's amazing now as I go through and listen
to them how well I could play when I was six, seven, eight years old. I mean
I wasn't what Chris Thile was when he was, you know, eight or nine or 10.
But, you know, mandolin playing hadn't advanced like it has now, you know.
But it's pretty amazing to hear me and my mom and dad sing harmony together
and hear me play the mandolin. I mean I could tell that I really had a gift,
you know, a precious gift. And I'm so glad that I, you know, have followed
through with it and really used that gift and nurtured it, honed it, made it
sharp and tried to use it as a tool now to make music and to make a living for
GROSS: It's lucky you were destined to play mandolin and not, say, baritone
saxophone or tuba or something because it would have been much larger than you
Mr. SKAGGS: Yes, it would have been very hard. Of course that wasn't a
popular instrument, you know, in Lawrence County, Kentucky.
GROSS: Well, no. Right.
Mr. SKAGGS: The mandolin, the banjo and the fiddle was very, very popular
instruments. But, you know, old time music was--bluegrass was a very popular
sound there in the mountains and the hills.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is country music and bluegrass
star Ricky Skaggs and he's got a new CD called "Three Pickers" which features
him playing with Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson.
Did you always sing, like you sang from when you were a child?
Mr. SKAGGS: I did. My mother used to tell me stories--she's since passed
on--but she used to tell me stories. She would hold me in her arms--and I can
remember this--she would hold me in her arms in church and I would sing
harmony with her and my dad would play guitar and I would sing harmony with
her. I was very young at the time and--like, you know, three or four years
old. The worst thing about having to sing in church is I had to always give
up my chewing gum. My mother would make me spit my chewing gum out and that
was a real bummer. I hated that. Just about the time it got really good I
had to give it up, spit it out, you know. That's just a bad memory.
GROSS: Is there a certain harmony that's like wired into your head from when
you were really young, a certain like interval that you always sang?
Mr. SKAGGS: Right. I always heard the third. You know, that's the tenor
lines, what we call it--if the lead was the one then the tenor would be the
third and the baritone would be the fifth. Usually the fifth would come
below, you know, the one, the lead, until the Stanley Brothers moved it up
above the third which is really cool. But that's the part that I always
heard. My mother said, you know, she would be working doing her chores at
home, cooking or whatever and I would be in the other room playing with my
toys and she'd be singing in the kitchen and she could hear me harmonizing
with her in the other room at a young age. It was--here again it was just a
gift that I could hear that part. I guess because she would sing that part
with my dad when my dad was home--he worked out of town a lot because he was a
welder and he had to travel a lot to wherever the best jobs were. So I would
hear them sing and that was--the part that made sense to me was the third.
GROSS: Well, while we're talking about harmony why don't we play another
track from the new CD "Three Pickers," and you're harmonizing on this with Doc
Watson. And this song is "What Would You Give." Are you singing the
third--higher than Doc Watson on this?
Mr. SKAGGS: Yes. Yeah. I love this song.
GROSS: Yeah. And it's a great performance. So here you are with Doc Watson
and Earl Scruggs from the new CD, "Three Pickers."
(Soundbite of "What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul")
Mr. SKAGGS, Mr. WATSON and Mr. SCRUGGS: Brother afar from the savior
today. Risking your soul for the things that decay. Oh, if today, God should
call you away, what would you give in exchange for your soul? What would you
give, in exchange. What would you give, in exchange. What would you give, in
exchange? What would you give in exchange for your soul? Oh, if today, God
should call you away, what would you give in exchange for your soul.
GROSS: Ricky Skaggs singing with Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs on the banjo, from
the new CD "Three Pickers."
There are so many bluegrass and country gospel songs that are about death or
about losing your soul. What did those songs mean to you as a kid? Were
they frightening at all?
Mr. SKAGGS: Yeah, I've had lots of counseling since then. No, I'm just
teasing. "The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake" used to scare me to death
when I heard that song by Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin back in the late '50s
or early '60s.
GROSS: I don't know that one. What on there?
Mr. SKAGGS: "The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake." It was about this
little girl that wandered out in the woods and got bit by a snake and, you
know, she dies, you know. And it just, ahhh, it just made me so afraid of
snakes, you know. Of course I don't have a lot for snakes even to this day.
But there was lot of songs, like you said, about death and about, you know,
death is real. I mean a lot of people thinks, you know, death is just a dream
or something but it really is real. And I guess with the Irish and Scottish
influence in the mountains of Kentucky and western North Carolina, east
Tennessee and the Appalachians there--just our ancestors--we really knew how
to grieve. You know, I know the Irish immigrants certainly grieved a lot
because I think they really missed their homeland. And it was just part of
something that, you know, I know my mother really grieved over her father and
of course my father too when he passed away in '96. And she grieved, you
know, until the day she passed away and it was just something that she really
couldn't quite deal with and get over. And, I don't know if it's a cultural
thing that, you know, they think if you get over it that you don't care about
them, you know. Or is it something that you, you know, you just actually feel
and, you know, and you're going through and it's part of a healing process.
But by and large, most of the music that kids heard was the same music that
adults listened to, you know. So if it had to deal with mother and her
passing or the death of a loved one or the afterlife or faith, salvation, or
what happens if you don't have salvation, you know, and those kinds of songs.
And they were real and they really did put a--I don't know, they put something
in, you know, the back of your mind. They would challenge you to think, you
know, and made you grow up.
GROSS: What was your church like?
Mr. SKAGGS: Well, we were foot-washing Baptists. It's called, you know, it
was free-will Baptist.
GROSS: Where does the foot washing come in?
Mr. SKAGGS: The foot washing, they would take that, you know, Jesus did that
to the disciples, you know, before, you know, at the Last Supper. And that
was--you know, the Baptists would do that--certain denominations of Baptists
would do that, would kind of follow that ritual, you know, around Easter time,
that kind of thing. And it was usually after the service but it was still
part of the service and the men would wash the men's feet and the women would
wash the women's feet. And it's a very, very humbling experience. If you've
never had a 75 or 80-year-old, you know, man would get down and, you know, and
wash your feet as a young man, it's very, very humbling. Especially someone
that you've looked up to all your life. You don't feel worthy, you know, of
some precious old saint, you know, that you've lived around all your life,
that you knew was a very godly man, to humble himself and get down on his
knees and wash your feet. I mean it's a very breaking of the heart, you know,
a very humbling thing. And it lasted many, many years and now it's just
almost a thing of the past. You hardly ever hear of that anymore.
GROSS: My guest is Ricky Skaggs. He's featured with Doc Watson and Earl
Scruggs on the new CD, "The Three Pickers." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is mandolin player and singer Ricky Skaggs. He performs with
Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs on the new CD, "The Three Pickers."
He started his career in bluegrass but in the '80s he changed direction and
became one of country music's most popular new traditionalists. The switch to
country also meant a change in image.
You had some classic '80s haircuts also. I think that should not go
Mr. SKAGGS: Oh, you noticed those.
Mr. SKAGGS: Yeah, Mack Mullet(ph), I had a few of those Mullet hairdos. My
kids look back at them now and they say, `Dad I can't believe that you had
that,' and I say, `well, hey, it was the style then.'
GROSS: They made me do it.
Mr. SKAGGS: They made me do it.
GROSS: So what kind of entourage did you have to travel with when you were on
Mr. SKAGGS: Well, I didn't have bodyguards or anything like that, you know,
because those women weren't, you know, trying to get to me and everything like
that. But I had, I guess the biggest group that we carried was about 21
people on the road. We had two buses and a tractor trailer. And, you know,
we had a pretty good payroll every week. And I'm so thankful that I can
travel in one bus now and carry the band, carry the concessions, carry all of
our instruments and everything underneath the bus. And, I mean, you do the
math. It is much more a tight, sound--it's a whole lot better situation for
me now and especially now that I'm recording for Skaggs Family Records, it's a
GROSS: Yeah, your own label.
Mr. SKAGGS: Yeah.
GROSS: You know, I'm just thinking, there's so many things that so many
performers in country music do because that's what your suppose to do in
country music. And at some point you wonder, `why does it go on like that?'
Some of the costumes, even the hats, you know, the famous hat acts.
Mr. SKAGGS: Yeah, right.
GROSS: It's such an obvious, you know, kind of like shtik, you know, why does
Mr. SKAGGS: I was a hair act.
GROSS: What? You were a hair act.
Mr. SKAGGS: I just had big hair, I didn't have a hat. I never could find a
hat that would fit my big ole head.
GROSS: Yeah, right.
Mr. SKAGGS: And it wasn't big in pride either, it was just big 'cause it was
big. My mother said, well, anyway. I guess, really in the '50s, late '40s
early '50s through the early '60s, you know the Nudie suits, the big
flashy--all that, you know.
Mr. SKAGGS: I think there was a lot of artists that really felt that, you
know, when a hard working mom and dad came to the Grand Ole Opry and paid
their money to come and see you, you know, you need to treat them the best you
can treat them. You know, you don't need to be dressed just like they are.
Mr. SKAGGS: They, you know, they expect better. They paid money, they don't
want to see you dressed like they are because if they do then you don't look
any different, you know, even though you may sing like, you know, the person
they come to see, they want to see you dressed to the nines, you know. And so
I really think a lot of that was for show, you know. It was before videos, it
was before, you know, the big wide screens and, you know, if you were sitting
40 or 50 rows back, you know, one of those red flashy suits, you could see it
all the way, you know, 80 rows back, you know.
GROSS: Yeah, good point.
Mr. SKAGGS: And there was just something about, you know, presentation. I
think it was a theatrical kind of look, you know. But I never got into the
real loud, flashy, shiny clothes and that kind of thing. And I think that's
just almost died out in Nashville. You know, Alan Jackson still wears a
really cool look, you know, and he kind of carries some of that Hank Williams
thing with him. You know, I think that's cool, you know. And you know, Brad
Paisley every so often will throw on a, you know, Nudie coat, you know, that
he's gotten, you know, with a pair of jeans which is kind of now and then, you
know, kind of look.
Mr. SKAGGS: And I'm cool with that, you know.
GROSS: Right. Right.
Mr. SKAGGS: But not a whole lot of the guys. But there is some rockabilly
guys here in town, you know, or some of the--like BR549 was a group that--they
were very retro. They wanted to look like the '50s so they wore everything
'50s, they drove, you know, an old car. You know, their wives would, you
know, dress up in, you know, in cancans and, you know, and, you know, the
little poodle, you know, skirts and all that kind of stuff and it was, you
know, great, you know, just to see them hanging out, you know, because they
just kind of lived like they were still in the '50s, you know. But, here
again, a lot of people would look at that as almost making fun of that, you
Mr. SKAGGS: But it really wasn't. I mean, they loved that music and that
style and that time.
GROSS: Ricky Skaggs plays with Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs on the new concert
CD "The Three Pickers." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with mandolinist and singer
Ricky Skaggs. He performs with Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs on the new CD "The
Three Pickers." Skaggs started his career in bluegrass, then became a country
music star in the '80s with 10 number one country hits in four years. In the
mid-'90s he returned to bluegrass.
1996 was a really life-changing year for you. Your father died, Bill Monroe
died and you left country music and returned to bluegrass. Did the death of
your father and the death of Bill Monroe connect at all with your returning to
Mr. SKAGGS: Well, I think it did. Those two men were very, very strong
pillars in my life. My dad, you know, had really taught me from, you know,
the cradle, you know. He had really worked with me--a very patient man--had
worked with me and teaching me a lot about music and about how to play it.
And Bill Monroe was such an inspiration. He was like a musical father to me.
And I knew both of those men really wanted me to be playing bluegrass again.
And country music in '96 was really starting to--I don't know, it was starting
to really, really change. And, I don't know, I just saw the writing on the
wall. I mean, I was not new country anymore.
The kind of country music that I was wanting to record was really what I had
recorded since '81, you know, and pretty much traditional country music, you
know, trying to find really great songs that said something, songs that had a
meaning and love songs. And that just didn't seem to be what was selling on
the radio. And so I really felt, you know, too, in my spirit that there was a
real paradigm shift about to change, about to take place. And I felt like at
Mr. Monroe's death that there was really going to be a change in this music.
I just felt like--when he passed away that there was going to be, you know, a
new audience for the music. And I really think that that happened. I think
that that really--when I look back at it now I really think that it did
And I just wanted to go back--there was no way that anyone could take Bill
Monroe's place and, you know, I certainly didn't come back to take his place.
But I wanted to come back and take Ricky Skaggs' place because I really felt
like I had a place in bluegrass. And even though I got out of bluegrass, I
took bluegrass with me into country music and now I wanted to return with the
knowledge and understanding of business and the understanding of recording and
putting on a show. I wanted to take all the things that I had learned and
come back and, you know, bring it back to this music. And I really started--I
started a record label and all that stuff. And so in '96 it was a bittersweet
time. I mean, like you mentioned, my father passed away, Mr. Monroe passed
away. But even with that death there was a new birth and a new life that came
from that and I think it was a turning point in my career. A lot of people
says, `Man, you're the smartest guy in the world,' you know, but it was just
one of those things that I felt in my heart that I really needed to do and it
was the right thing.
GROSS: You have your own record label now called Skaggs Family Records and
one of the recordings of yours on that label is a recording of gospel music.
And I thought we could hear a song from that. This is called "The Darkest
Hour." Story behind this song?
Mr. SKAGGS: Well, here again it's another great Stanley Brothers song that I
learned many years ago. It's also a song that Emmylou recorded for her album
"Roses in the Snow." And really I guess it was the first time that the
general public had ever heard Ricky Skaggs sing, I say the big market,
Emmylou's market and the country music market. She allowed me to sing a verse
in that song in her version of that. And I'm always grateful for Emmylou and
Brian for allowing me to sing on that. I was a completely unheard of singer
and Emmylou gave me an opportunity to do that and it was just a great blessing
and I'm always grateful for them. But I love this song. It really has a
great promise in it for those that believe and I think it's a wonderful
recording. I'm glad we had a chance to do it from the album "Soldier of the
GROSS: So, from that album, "Soldier of the Cross," this is Ricky Skaggs and
his band Kentucky Thunder.
(Soundbite of "The Darkest Hour")
Mr. SKAGGS: (Singing) The sun is slowly sinking, the day is almost gone.
Still darkness falls all around us and we must journey on.
Mr. SKAGGS and KENTUCKY THUNDER: (Singing) The darkest hour is just before
dawn. The narrow way leads home. Lay down your soul at Jesus' feet. The
darkest hour is just before dawn.
GROSS: That's Ricky Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder from the CD "Soldier
of the Cross," which is a CD of gospel music.
I think I have mostly played your more soulful country and bluegrass songs
today and gospel songs. But I should say you also do this great like really
up-tempo kind of stuff. But I read that Bill Monroe once said to you when you
were playing really fast in a concert, `What do you think of a man who plays
my music that fast?' Did he object to you playing very fast?
Mr. SKAGGS: Well, you know, he never really got to hear us play
hard-driving, in-your-face bluegrass like we're playing nowadays. You know, I
wish he could have because we were playing that with a country band. But
also, it's really funny that we'd have this conversation today about this
because I was in my car just earlier today, I was talking about, or thinking
about a time when we played one of his instrumentals called "Wheel Hoss" on
the stage of the Opry and I had him come out and play mandolin with us with
the full country band: with steel, electric guitar, drums, piano. And when
he came offstage, he said, `That's the best right there that song's ever been
played.' You know, and I thought, `Are you kidding?' I mean, this was with a
country band. But he wouldn't have said that had he not meant it, you know.
But, you know, it's funny because he would always joke about things like that
and you'd think that he was really, really serious, you know. And, you know,
he'd come back 10 minutes later and say something, you know, just the
contrary. So you had to know him, you had to know his heart. But we love
playing this music with fire and passion and excitement. I think that's what
gets people's attention. They love to hear it. And, you know, it's really
hard to sit and listen to music like that without patting your foot and
getting involved in it, you know. And my theory is if you can experience it
through a live concert where you can smell it, touch it, taste it, feel it,
you know, you're hooked on the music, you know, you'll never be the same.
GROSS: Well, Ricky Skaggs, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SKAGGS: Well, it was great being with you today, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: Ricky Skaggs plays with Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs on the new concert
CD "The Three Pickers." The concert will be shown as a PBS special on July
(Soundbite of song; applause)
Mr. SKAGGS: Boys, you all ready to tear it up?
(Soundbite of crowd screaming)
Mr. SKAGGS: All right, Jimmy.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. SKAGGS: (Singing) No matter what I say or do, you're never satisfied.
I've tried and tried so many times, I'm leaving now, goodbye. I'm riding on
that midnight train, my head's a-hanging low. These awful blues they'll
follow me wherever I may go.
(Singing) Oh, why on earth was I ever born? I'll never understand. To fall
in love with a woman like you, in love with another man. I'm riding on that
midnight train, my head's a-hanging low. These awful blues they'll follow me
wherever I may go.
GROSS: Coming up, Arn Chorn-Pond. He survived a Khmer Rouge labor camp by
playing propaganda songs for the Khmer leaders. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Arn Chorn-Pond discusses his escape from a Khmer
Rouge labor camp as a child
TERRY GROSS, host:
Arn Chorn-Pond is a survivor of the Cambodian genocide. He was nine years old
when Pol Pot seized power. His parents were killed and he was taken to a
labor camp where he was held with about 700 other children. They lived in a
renovated temple. The children were forced to work from five in the morning
to midnight with only a little rice for nourishment. Pond says that three or
four times a day the Khmer Rouge would kill prisoners in the back of the
temple while the other children were forced to watch and sometimes were made
In the camp, Pond was taught to play flute so that he could entertain the
Khmer Rouge with propaganda songs. That helped keep him alive. After four
years in the camps he was forced to fight in the Khmer Rouge army against the
invading Vietnamese. He ran away, survived in the jungle and eventually found
a refugee camp in Thailand where he was adopted by an American relief worker.
He now divides his time between Cambodia and Lowell, Massachusetts. Arn
Chorn-Pond is the subject of the new documentary, "The Flute Player," which
will be shown tomorrow night on many PBS stations as part of the P.O.V.
I asked him why he thought the Khmer Rouge chose him to be one of the
musicians in the children's labor camp.
Mr. CHORN-POND: They just ask if anybody want to play music or dance. They
ask and I sort of--my hand raised quickly. You have to make the decision.
But five other kids--three other kids including me and the number two kids who
were chosen. They only chose the number one and the number two and three of
the boys were killed also. They didn't make it because they were not that
good. And I was the number one player. I was better than anyone else so they
chose me. I would have been dead also if the five of us--you know, if I
didn't win the five of us. So I was faster than anyone else.
They brought a teacher to come and taught us for five days and I didn't even
know the guy's name. He was an older man and he was asked to teach us and he
told me that--you know, he asked me to study hard, otherwise, you know, he
would not stay here long. And I said, `What do you mean?' And he said, you
know, `The Khmer Rouge--I'm sure the Khmer Rouge would kill me.' So, you
know, he taught me basic and then I go on my own. And the other two kids
succeed. The other three, you know, they ended up in a mango grove.
GROSS: That's a lot of pressure to learn music. So did you like anything
about playing the flute?
Mr. CHORN-POND: No. I mean, at first it's like it saved my life. I know
that technically, physically saved my life. I mean, if I don't succeeded, I
would have been dead. And it's every minute in the Khmer Rouge time it's like
life and death, you know. I don't know how I did it and survived it. And
last, you know, the starvation, you know, you would die, you're just starving.
So if the Khmer Rouge kill you or not, you're starving to death. I mean, half
of the people are starving to death because they don't give them food for many
weeks. And we work so hard. At night I would have time to practice my music,
the flute and the other instrument called the khim, it's like the dulcimer.
And, you know, at night, I mean, the kids are--blood all over the center too.
People were killed at our center. That blood would not wash away on the
floor. And the kids were moaning. And at night they had nightmares and they
throw up and it smell like in hell, you know, in that place. And I usually
didn't sleep, I couldn't sleep. And I remember that, you know, around me
there are a lot of kids who are, you know, dying already while they were
sleeping. You know, not like me. I was probably the only one. I'd look
around that--I always couldn't sleep. And I'd look up at the windows and, you
know, all of that. And I'd be able to play my music. And every time I
escaped it, I escaped like where I was through the music that I play. I
thought I was able to practice. I was, you know, pretending that I was in
somewhere nice, you know, because of the sound of music, you know, the sound
like the harp, you know, the dulcimer. So I thought I was in heaven
GROSS: What was it like to perform for one of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge
when you knew that they were just slaughtering people, that they were
responsible for genocide?
Mr. CHORN-POND: They asked me to play for them. Sometime they kill people
around so they wouldn't have to hear the sound of the screaming. They--you
know, I don't know what happened. Sometime the Khmer Rouge kill people and
they, you know, have a microphone, you know, they have a loudspeaker playing
music, their revolutionary songs. So people know that if they do that loud
noise they would kill people. You know, usually when I play the flute I close
my eyes. And at the end of the playing I hope--when I open my eyes I hope
that I was not around by the Khmer Rouge. So, you know, my mind goes back and
forth, you know, playing for the Khmer Rouge and playing for the kids. In
America I feel safe, you know, so that's probably the epitome of my life now
to go back and forth.
GROSS: Does it seem like when your eyes are closed part of you is thinking
about the days when you were playing for the Khmer Rouge?
Mr. CHORN-POND: (Laughing) Yeah. Yeah. And also, you know, trying to tell
myself that it's OK now, you're playing in America now; you're playing for the
people now, you know, the children now.
GROSS: After a couple of years in the camp you were told that instead of
playing flute you had to pick up a gun and fight against the Vietnamese. What
was behind this change?
Mr. CHORN-POND: The Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and I was taken the flute
away and was given a gun to go out like other children, thousands of other
children. I was not prepared. I didn't even know how to shoot the guns and
the Khmer Rouge said that, you know, you have to figure it all out yourself.
And we had no time to train, the enemies invade our country now so, you know,
like they truck thousands of kids who were not Khmer Rouge to go and fight and
die. And sometimes we were put in the middle like decoy, you know. The
Vietnamese had experience fighting with Americans, you know. They are pretty
good and plus they have tanks. If they were using the plane in the beginning
I would have been dead already. And sometimes when we didn't have an order to
take off from the battlefield, the Khmer Rouge would shoot us behind. So we
didn't know what side we were on. And I became good at it after a while
seeing many of my friends got shot left and right in the head. Because those
kids were innocent, they didn't know how to fight or anything like that.
And that's a very sad time for me. Change but not change to be better but,
you know, it's more of a 12-year-old boy become a real man now. What they
call it, a real man, watching your friends killed left and right from you.
And I remember I felt very bad. I felt in my life I never want to feel that
anymore, like hate, anger and also, you know, like powerless. You know, you
can't do anything while your friends die right in your hand, like while you
are holding them and blood all over you and you can't help them. It's hard
because I have to feel hate, I have to feel in control in the battlefields
like that. And then your friends die around you and you feel powerless at the
same times. You know, it's just hard.
GROSS: You ran away from being a soldier. You ran into the forest and hid
out there and then eventually made your way to a refugee camp. What was the
last straw for you? What made you decide to take the risk of running away?
Mr. CHORN-POND: Because I couldn't take it any more. You know, I couldn't
take the pain anymore and--it's just like living in a jungle. It's just hard
too, the loneliness. In the jungle of Cambodia, you know, between Battambang
province and Thai border is just far. And I never knew that there was
Thailand. I thought the world was flat, you know, for a little boy like that.
I never knew anything about anything. I thought the jungle would never end.
I almost wanted to kill myself a lot of times. In the jungle, I mean, it's
just so lonely and a lot of time I was alone by myself. Sometime I have few
other people who--we reunited in the jungle--you know, they got lost also.
And sometimes when I was so small and there are a lot of things there,
dangerous things in the jungle. You know, like, they would ask me, those four
or five older Khmer Rouge would ask me to fish for them, to do anything. And
I didn't want to do for them and they hit me in the head, you know, like with
And I run off from them again and I saw some human bones in the jungle. They
were lost and probably were killed by animals, especially snakes, you know,
they are everywhere. And just a risk already to eat any fruit. You know, the
water was plenty in the jungle, you know, there were small streams and stuff.
But the food, I ate bark, I ate anything I could find there. I identified
some of the leaves that I could eat without poisoning me. And usually the
fruits. I mean, I learned how to follow the monkey. Usually they are all
over the place and if you don't do anything bad to them they won't do anything
to you. But I wouldn't stand a chance with them because there are so many of
them. And if I just kill one of them they probably would kill me. I snuck
sometimes--you know, a little monkey came around me, I just grab him and sit
on him and the next day I eat him--you know, dry him up and eat him. I mean,
if the parent knows that I did that they would kill me. I feel bad, you know,
as human being doing that, killing. You know, I need to eat anyway, you know.
So usually now I follow them wherever they go and whatever fruit they eat I
could eat also usually. So I just follow them a lot of places.
GROSS: Right. Well, you were starving to death. So you finally got to a
refugee camp. This was across the Thai border?
Mr. CHORN-POND: Yes, where I met my...
GROSS: Did you just stumble into it?
Mr. CHORN-POND: Yes. Yes. I was probably close to death. I was about
probably 30 pounds. I was close to death. And they took me and put me in the
camp like everyone else. I couldn't even get up, you know. Malaria--I had,
you know, cerebral malaria, you know, after living so long in the jungle.
GROSS: At this refugee camp you met a Unitarian minister named Peter Pond...
Mr. CHORN-POND: Yes.
GROSS: ...who became your adoptive father. Why did he decide to adopt you
and take him home with you to the United States?
Mr. CHORN-POND: I have no idea. I mean, I was among--again about 500
children along the border were put into the camp and where I saw, the first
time--II was incomprehensive. I mean, I was, you know, like no food and all
that. I could not take any food they give us children. We would throw up
just like that because of the starvation. But I think that particular night
many children were drowned to death. I mean, it monsooned rain and I remember
I couldn't get up, I couldn't move and some kid would drown to death. And I
was also about to drown. And at night and--I mean, people rescuing us, you
know, from different country. And my dad was like trying to rescue other kids
too but he accidently stumbled on me and, you know, like stepped on me and
he's like--I don't know how many pounds he has but he stepped on me and all I
remember was that I cling on to him, never let him go. I never let him go.
And he told me later on, he said, `You know, the reason I come to you, I see
you more than anybody else. I pick you because of your teeth.' I had really
white teeth at night. I clung to him and I probably scream at him or
something and he saw my teeth. And the next morning he come back again trying
to find me among the children. And probably some children died during that
night. So I think he have something for me, I don't know.
GROSS: My guest is Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide.
He's the subject of the new documentary "The Flute Player" which will be shown
tomorrow night on many PBS stations as part of the P.O.V. series. More after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest, Arn Chorn-Pond, is a survivor of the Cambodian genocide. He
spent four years of his childhood in a Khmer Rouge labor camp where he was
taught to play flute and perform propaganda songs. After running away from
the Khmer Rouge, he reached a refugee camp where he was adopted by an American
relief worker. Pond now divides his time between Lowell, Massachusetts, and
Now among the things that you're doing now, you're working with gangs. What
do you relate to about gang members?
Mr. CHORN-POND: They are similar to what I went through in Cambodia. They
are probably, you know, the child of war also themselves in the streets of
Lowell and Providence. You know, they are confused about who they are, you
know, their identity. I mean, some of the Cambodians I know they said, you
know, the gang kids, they said, `I don't know who I am, you know, I'm maybe
Spanish. I want to be white, you know. I want to be this, I want to be
that.' So the same thing with the white kids who join gang or Spanish kids and
stuff like that. And somebody stare at them, they shoot them. They have a
fight with them, a drive-by shooting or anything. It's just confusion of
identity and the need to have--you know, I don't know what kind of needs they
want, there's so many things, you know. They want money, they want other
things, you know. But it's just confusion inside of their heads just like I
was when I came here. I don't know where I want to go in life and, you know,
why I ended up here, you know, and stuff like that.
GROSS: One of the projects you're doing in Cambodia is called the Masters
Project. Tell us something about it.
Mr. CHORN-POND: Yes, they kill--you know, many masters were killed, during,
you know, 30 years of war that started the Americans and Vietnamese fighting
each other and then got Cambodia involved in the war. And America bombed
Cambodia for a long time. And now I learn, you know, it's sad to say, you
know, more bombs dropped in Cambodia then in Japan in World War II--dropped in
Southeast Asia. And Cambodia got hard hit. And they died there and then
worse of that, the Cambodian end up in the killing field, that's really bad
for Cambodia. And master musician, you know, 90 percent of them disappeared.
And so what do we do with the art and culture in my country? And that's the
soul of my country and that's the identity of my country and my people. And
what are you going to do with that, almost no artists who are like the
national treasure left in Cambodia? And so I found some of them now still
disoriented from the war and from the killing fields and trying to hide
self-identity and hide their name, you know, because they're so scared,
they're still so scared. And many of them are on the street, you know,
selling charcoal and cigarettes and not so many people care about them. And I
was able to, you know, find them and now let them teach and record them before
they die, you know, and let them perform again.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. CHORN-POND: Thank you.
GROSS: Arn Chorn-Pond is the subject of the documentary "The Flute Player."
It will be shown on many PBS stations tomorrow night as part of the P.O.V.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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