Billboard article – 11/22/2017 by Chuck Dauphin
Over the weekend, country and bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs experienced something of a blast from his past.
The Grand Ole Opry stalwart served as the celebrity guest for the 75th anniversary run of the Santa Train, an annual event that provides Christmas cheer for many in the coal mining areas of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. As part of his duties, the singer threw out plush toys to the thousands of people that lined the route of the Santa Train, while volunteers on the ground handed out toys, coats, candy, and wrapping paper. Skaggs tells Billboard the faces surely looked a bit familiar to him.
“I saw eastern Kentucky,” says the singer, who grew up in nearby Cordell. “I will tell you what else I saw. When I went to Belfast and Dublin, I saw people that looked like my kin. The first time I went over there with Emmylou [Harris] back in 1978, I just remember seeing the Irish people, and by the looks on their faces, I could have been in Paintsville. I could have been in Pikeville or St. Paul. The Scotch-Irish DNA is so strong here, musically and here in the mountains. I saw history. I saw my upbringing. I saw years of music.”
Skaggs says that the economic hardships that many in the area endure is something he also knows all too well. “It’s been really amazing to see the people that I grew up around. It’s coming home. We saw it a lot. When my dad was disabled to work — he messed his back up real bad in an accident as a welder. I remember well us going to the grocery store and buying food on credit, and running up a long tab. He was waiting to get his government compensation because he was on a government job. He fought to get that.
“I remember what it was like having two pairs of pants to wear to school in a week,” he continues. “Mama had to wash one every day. I had one pair of shoes. I remember that — literally. We never felt like we were poor because there was always people a lot worse than we were. That’s what mama would tell us.”
The Santa Train — a partnership of CSX, Food City, Appalachian Power, Soles4Souls and the Kingsport (TN) Chamber of Commerce — is one of Appalachia’s most anticipated holiday traditions. The train leaves Pikeville, Kentucky early on the Saturday prior to Thanksgiving and makes stops throughout the day in towns such as Elkhorn City, Kentucky, and St. Paul, Virginia, before winding up the day in Kingsport with a concert performance from the celebrity guest — which in the past has included names such as Patty Loveless, Darryl Worley, and Amy Grant.
Hundreds of volunteers give of their time to ensure that the day is a success. From packing bags to handing out gifts at the stops, the Santa Train started out in 1943 as a gift of gratitude from the merchants of Kingsport to the people of Appalachia. And, according to the Kingsport Chamber’s Amy Margaret McColl — who also serves as marketing manager for Visit Kingsport — that legacy remains in place today. While the event seemingly runs like clockwork on the day of the train ride, transporting Kris Kringle, a celebrity guest, and the presents handed out — estimated at seventeen tons’ worth —  takes a great deal of organizing.
“There are months and months of planning that go into an operation of this size,” McColl tells Billboard. “We work side by side with our sponsors early on to plan the logistics and the details.” She adds that the event brings out a variety of people — for many different reasons. “We’ve been using the term lately, ‘Santa Train Sentimentalist.’ You’ve got your train enthusiasts, who are here for the locomotive and the train itself, and they are the ones that have been here for years — the grandparents who came as children, brought their children, and now are bringing their grandchildren. It’s so much fun to see not only the joy in the children’s face, but these grandparents who are watching. You can see the happiness in their faces with all the memories that it brings back.”
While CSX and Food City have been integral cogs in the Santa Train wheel for years, the event continues to add new sponsors, such as Appalachian Power and Soles4Souls. According to the latter’s Buddy Teaster, who serves as president and CEO, it’s an event that he is very excited for his team to be a part of — though it does remind him that things need to be done to establish economic development in the area.
“It’s a sobering moment,” explains Teaster. “I know it’s easy to say, ‘I feel blessed,’ or, ‘This makes me grateful for all I have,’ and all of that is true. But it’s also recognition that we need to go deeper than that… There also needs to be a much deeper commitment to making a difference.” He also offers that the experience of seeing the pure joy on the children’s faces during the stops was something he won’t forget.
And neither will Skaggs. The performer says he enjoyed the experience of going home to Eastern Kentucky, though after a day of throwing out the plush toys from the back of the train with Santa, he said he doesn’t plan on trying out for a QB position with a football team anytime soon.
“My arm is as sore it can be. If I could tie a rock on the end of my arm, maybe I could get a little more distance,” he says with a laugh. There’s not going to be any Ricky Skaggs, quarterback — not with these two rotator cuffs.”
For more information about the Santa Train, click here.
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