Bluegrass breakthrough: Timing was right for Del McCoury and sons
SNOWMASS VILLAGE In 1965, country music promoter Carlton Haney started up the first bluegrass festival, on Cantrells Horse Farm in Fincastle, Virg, not far from Roanoke. Sensing that the advent of the festival era was dawning, Del McCoury, a singer and guitarist who had spent a year in Bill Monroes famed Blue Grass Boys, formed his own band, Del McCoury & His Dixie Pals. McCoury was right in his assessment. Multi-day, multi-act bluegrass festivals sprouted up Southeast and Midwest, and the fortunes of the bluegrass group expanded greatly.So that was an opportune time, said McCoury, from his home in Nashville. All those guys Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin they paved the way for us younger guys. It was tough for them.The newly created festival circuit hardly brought McCoury fame and fortune. You could say life remained tough for McCoury and stayed that way for a few more decades. From the mid-60s through the early 90s, McCoury maintained his day job cutting, sawing and transporting timber. Music was set aside for warm-weather weekends, when the festivals were held, and at night, in clubs. Fortunately, the timber company was owned by an understanding gentleman who happened to be the uncle of McCourys wife. So when the band had to travel far from their base in York County, in southern Pennsylvania, or when they landed a tour, McCoury was excused from work.Things were no more professional on the recording front. Id go from one label to another to another, said McCoury. None of them were that great. But I kept recording and thats how you develop your sound. And as for personnel, McCoury got so accustomed to rotating members into the Dixie Pals that he stopped being bothered when a new face was shuttled in at the last minute. By 1991, McCoury thought that, just maybe, he had developed his sound and reputation enough to give a go at the big time. At the age of 52, he moved to Nashville, the center of the bluegrass industry. He changed the name of the group which by then included two of his sons, mandolinist Ronnie and banjoist Rob from the Dixie Pals to the Del McCoury Band.We figured wed give it a shot, said Del, now a 68-year-old with shining silver hair and a sweet, down-home demeanor. But I kept the house in Pennsylvania. I figured we may have to move back there. But everything started falling into place here. Everything just seemed to work out.
The latest piece to fall into place for the Del McCoury Band is on the business side. Sony Red, an arm of the massive BMG Music group, signed a distribution deal with McCoury Music, the label Del formed in 2003. The deal gives McCoury a little more muscle in the music world; in September, McCoury Music will release the first-ever bluegrass CD by country heavyweight Merle Haggard. (The label released an album by singer-guitarist Larry Sparks in March; it is set to release a childrens album by Ronnie McCoury, Little Mo McCoury, in August.)The Del McCoury Band with fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram, in addition to the three McCourys is set to do a bunch of dates this summer with country superstar Vince Gill and his wife, Amy Grant. Gill not only tours often with the McCourys, but when he does one of his occasional bluegrass shows, the McCoury Band is his steady backing group. The McCourys backed Gill on three tracks on his recent four-disc set, These Days. Next year, the McCoury Band is looking to tour with Haggard. Last week, the band had a rare break from the road and stayed home in Nashville and played three nights at the Grand Ole Opry.But Del & the Boys as they billed themselves on the title of a 2001 CD have also broken outside the bounds of bluegrass and country. The band is scheduled to play this summer at the High Sierra Music Festival, alongside such acts as the Drive-By Truckers, Les Claypool and the Disco Biscuits, and as part of a jazz series at Carnegie Hall. The Del McCoury Band was the first bluegrass act to appear at the rock-oriented Bonnaroo Festival, and the only bluegrass act to play Camp Oswego, a weekend-long, 1999 bash thrown by the jam-band Phish in upstate New York.They called, asked us to play Oswego. Not realizing who these guys are, or who their fans are, I said sure, said McCoury. McCoury was stunned to see he would be playing his acoustic music for some 70,000 people, but was even more pleasantly surprised to find out just how well appreciated they were by their hosts. Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio proposed collaborating onstage. I didnt know they knew anything about bluegrass, continued McCoury. Trey asked if I knew Blue & Lonesome. I said, Blue & Lonesome by Bill Monroe and Hank Williams? I said, You know that one? Thats as hardcore as you can get. They knew the music.
The McCoury Band hasnt had to alter the music on their way to such prominence. While most of the popular bluegrass-oriented bands Bla Fleck & the Flecktones, Nickel Creek, Yonder Mountain String Band have broken cleanly with their roots, the McCourys play a sound that would be easily recognizable to Bill Monroe. Instead of testing out electric instruments and bringing in guest players, they have refined, maybe even perfected, the idea of traditional bluegrass, creating a distinctive yet familiar sound. The furthest afield they have gone was to record 1999s The Mountain, an acoustic collaboration with alt-country singer Steve Earle.McCoury expresses a bewilderment about how that sound has been embraced at rock festivals, in Carnegie Hall, and in the offices of one of the worlds biggest entertainment conglomerates: I tell you, man, its a mystery to me. I cant figure it out. But the fact is that McCourys quintet may be the finest group in bluegrass history. Their 2005 album, The Company We Keep, earned them their first Grammy, for Best Bluegrass Album. (Their most recent CD, last years The Promised Land, was an all-gospel bluegrass record.)McCoury can remember a time when hardly anyone knew the music. If you said, I play bluegrass, theyd say, Whats that? he recalled.McCoury, who picked up the banjo after hearing Flatt & Scruggs, became desperate to play the obscure style. At least, it beat working in the timber industry. Music was always in my mind, he said. If I was working, I was thinking about music.After playing in a few groups in the Baltimore area, McCoury earned an invite from Bill Monroe to become a Blue Grass Boy and never mind that the invitation was to play guitar, rather than banjo. McCoury accepted, and played with Monroe from 1963-64.After leaving the Blue Grass Boys, McCoury headed to California, lured by the offer of a spot in the Golden State Boys. Away from the famed Monroe, and away from the Southeast, where bluegrass was reasonably well-recognized, McCoury realized how obscure the music was. The Golden State Boys had a regular gig on a TV show in Huntington Park, outside of Los Angeles and little else. After a year on the West Coast, McCoury headed back to Pennsylvania.The timing was good. McCourys return to the East coincided with the arrival of bluegrass festivals. The festival circuit offered both work and notoriety.The bluegrass festivals spread everywhere, said McCoury. I noticed people were coming from all over the country, from foreign countries. Bluegrass received another big boost in the mid-80s, with the formation of the International Bluegrass Music Association.The big boost for McCoury came when his boys were old enough to join the band. Ronnie is a top-notch mandolinist, a shining presence onstage and, with a touch of the Deadhead to him he once sold Jerry Garcia a couple of banjos adds a jamming element to the band. Rob, four years younger, is a solid banjoist. (Jason Carter, who has been in the band since 1992, is a hot-shot fiddler; Alan Bartram replaced Mike Bub as the bands bassist in 2005.)McCourys band had become a quartet in the early 80s. All those guys were strong, and I didnt miss the mandolin, said McCoury. Ronnie, however, was interested in mandolin, and spent one summer playing simple rhythm parts in his dads band. Surrounded by talented players, Ronnie learned fast, and began taking lead breaks in the group. Only one thing stopped him from joining the Dixie Pals upcoming tour of Europe his final year of high school.One day, Ronnie came from school and told his father that the principal wanted to speak with him. The principal told the elder McCoury: You know, I think this boy will learn more over there than he will in school, said Del. That floored me.Rob began as a bassist in the Dixie Pals, taking over the slot from Dels brother, Jerry. When a banjo player quit, Rob moved over to the quintessential bluegrass instrument.With the Del McCoury Bands core intact, their leader knew his days in the timber industry were numbered. McCoury enjoyed working with wood, but he prefers bluegrass. He has just one regret about how things have worked out.I was in good physical shape, he said of his past life. A lot better than I am now.
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