Del McCoury Band returns to Wheeler Opera House
IF YOU GO …
What: The Del McCoury Band
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Wednesday, Dec. 6, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $40
Tickets: Wheeler box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
Bluegrass legend Del McCoury has seen it all over his 50-plus years on the road.
He played with Bill Monroe and the original masters of the form. He’s witnessed new innovations and progressive styles and watched as a succession of generations of listeners returned to the traditional bluegrass style he personifies.
When he got his start with Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in the early 1960s, he learned simply by watching the “Father of Bluegrass” ply his trade.
“He was the first real professional that I worked with,” McCoury, 78, said in a recent phone interview from his home in Nashville. “I learned a lot from him just from his example. He would never tell you anything about what you should do and what you shouldn’t do — he just expected you to work hard and get onstage with him. He did not like lazy people.”
McCoury had been working as a banjo player for 10 years when Monroe took interest in him. But Monroe was looking for a guitar player and a singer, so McCoury tried his hand at that.
“I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this — I don’t know if I can learn the words to all these songs,’” McCoury recalled with a laugh.
He did, of course, and in the half-century since then — singing and playing guitar — he’s taken up Monroe’s throne atop the bluegrass world.
But it was never glamorous. When he began touring with Monroe, he recalled, they drove a 1959 Oldsmobile station wagon. McCoury had been a truck driver, so Monroe recruited him to drive Monroe’s first tour bus.
“It was tough travel back then — we were running on roads that weren’t interstates,” he said. “It was all these two-lane roads.”
McCoury was even there when Monroe got his “Father of Bluegrass” nickname. He recalled sitting with Monroe’s manager, Ralph Rinzler, when it happened.
“I remember him saying, ‘Bill needs a title!’” McCoury recalled with a laugh. “‘King of Bluegrass?’ ‘Master of Bluegrass?’ We finally arrived on that one but I couldn’t help much. I didn’t know what to call the man.”
On Wednesday night, McCoury brings his long-running band — a traditional five-piece that now includes his sons Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo — to the Wheeler Opera House.
They usually take the stage these days without a set list, McCoury said, treating the audience to an evening of requests. (The band is also working on a new record, their first since the magnificent 2016 Woody Guthrie tribute “Del and Woody,” and may test out a new song or two on the Wheeler crowd.)
“I figure the best way to do it is to do what the people want to hear,” McCoury said. “Forget what I want to hear.”
Colorado’s own rich bluegrass history and thriving culture tends to produce fun and knowledgeable audiences with smart requests, McCoury said.
“I always look forward to playing Colorado,” he said. “I like that state, and I like the people. It’s a great state for musicians and singers.”
The only song they tend to play every night, he said, is the McCoury spin on Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”
McCoury has been riding high on the current bluegrass boom, which he traces back to the widespread popularity of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack in 2000. He compared the current bluegrass wave to the rise of Sam Bush, Newgrass Revival and the progressive sound of decades earlier. But each boom in interest in the form, and every permutation of bluegrass style, leads new generations to dig back into the history of the form. Inevitably, that leads to McCoury.
“I do have a lot of young people who come to my shows now,” he said. “That’s where the future is.”
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Aspen Words’ literary conference and festival is back in-person after a pandemic hiatus and a move from June to autumn.