Ricky Skaggs steers family sleigh to Riverwind Casino for festive concert with The Whites 

What started as something every touring musicians fears " a tour-bus breakdown between stops " led to what's become a six-year holiday tradition for country and bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs: an annual series of acoustic Christmas concerts performed with his family.

Skaggs and his band, Kentucky Thunder, were scheduled for a concert with The Chieftains in Atlanta's Chastain Park, when he received word the bus had broken down, and there was no chance they or their equipment would arrive in time for the show.

"Sharon, my wife, and my kids, Molly and Luke, were on the road with me, and the professionalism and the entertainer in us just sorta rose up in us rose up and said, 'Well, we've got to do something,'" Skaggs said. "So we started thinking of songs that Sharon and I could sing together, and she could sing this and I could sing that, and Molly had her banjo with her.

"Long story short, the audience loved what they heard, they loved the intimacy, they loved the family connection, they loved everything about it. They loved us watching Molly talk to the audience and play her banjo without any fear, and sing without any fear, doing what came natural to her."

Backstage, Skaggs' booking agent made an unexpected suggestion.

"He came back to us afterwards and said, 'If you guys could put together a Christmas show with you and The Whites and the kids, I could book that,'" Skaggs said. "That's how it started: out of necessity, like a lot of great things."

Inclusion of the Whites in the Christmas shows is a natural, since the longtime country stars and Grand Ole Opry regulars are related to Skaggs by marriage: Sharon White is his wife; Buck White, his father in law; and Cheryl White, his sister-in-law. Among The Whites' many recording credits is an appearance on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack in 2000.

Although recent acoustic Christmas shows usually include a string section, Skaggs said the added instrumentation has not diminished the intimacy of the live performances.

"It's amazing how well the acoustic works with a string ensemble. It's so gorgeous," he said. "Most people don't connect the two, and it's a beautiful thing when we have a string section, which we are going to have in Norman, so we're looking forward to that. It's going to be a great night."

Skaggs, who's unabashed about being a Christian, said he works to balance his faith and business, and that his religious commitment is just a part of the festive shows.

"We're Christians first, but we're musicians and entertainers, too," he said. "But we also don't want to make audiences feel like they've been to church, where they have a good time, instead of feeling like they've been threshed over the coals.

"Christmastime is one of those time where the name Jesus is a whole lot more palatable than any other time in the year. It's just easier to talk about Him and sing songs about Him, but we try to find songs that don't always have Him still in a manger."

Skaggs Family and The Whites perform at 8 p.m. Thursday at Riverwind Casino, 1544 W. State Highway 9 in Norman. "C.G. Niebank

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