Del McCoury Band opens Wheeler bluegrass fest
March 21, 2002
Like a lot of bluegrass players, Del McCoury has been having the time of his life these past few years. Bluegrass has been adopted by an audience of young music enthusiasts, and the 62-year-old McCoury has found himself pegged as the emblem of bluegrass hip by a collection of jam-band fans, DJs and funk groups. He has performed with jam-bands Phish and the String Cheese Incident; his Del McCoury Band collaborated with country-rocker Steve Earle on the acclaimed 1999 album, “The Mountain.”At the same time, McCoury remains a traditionalist, and is as respected in acoustic bluegrass circles as he is adored in the world of turntables and electric guitars. The all-acoustic Del McCoury Band has won Entertainer of the Year honors from the International Bluegrass Music Association six of the past 10 years. The band’s recent CDs – last year’s “Del & the Boys,” 1999’s “The Family” – are textbook examples of how a traditional music can be nudged into modern times without altering the basics of the music. To McCoury, the present boom – which McCoury says has him turning down gigs for the first time – isn’t all that different from the first bluegrass boom he participated in. A native of York County, Pa., McCoury was drafted by bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe to be one of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in the early ’60s. Then, like now, was a good time to be a string picker. “I started playing in the early ’60s with Bill Monroe, and he was just starting to get his new audience,” said McCoury, who switched from banjo to lead singer/guitarist in the Blue Grass Boys. “The folk boom, he got lumped in with that. And the bluegrass festivals started in the early ’60s. Before that, Bill would come in and play with the big country music packages. The festivals gave Bill his own audience. It gave us a place to play that we could call our own. And there were a lot of progressive bands in the ’60s, just like today.”Most interesting is what McCoury did between the booms. In 1964, McCoury married and began having children. Powered by the Beatles, rock music was on the rise. Bluegrass and most every other musical form was on the descent. McCoury left Monroe’s band, and became a part-time musician. He worked during the week – mostly as a timber cutter for his wife’s family – and music became a weekend fling, as McCoury played local churches and regional festivals.Just as family turned McCoury from a musician to a wood cutter, family would also bring him back to artistic prominence. When his two boys, Ronnie and Rob, no longer required constant parental supervision, McCoury was able to pay full attention to music. And when he went to put together a full-time lineup for his band, the Dixie Pals, it was family that would fill the stage. Ronnie became the regular mandolinist in 1981, at the age of 14; banjoist Rob joined up in 1988.”That helped for them to be grown. And then they got interested in playing all at the same time,” said McCoury, who put his own name on the band in 1992, when he moved to Nashville and set the current lineup, with fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Mike Bub. “They got out of high school and didn’t want to do anything else. It never dawned on me that they’d play music someday. Then I turned around and they were on stage with me.”The younger McCourys have added immeasurably to the band. Ronnie, especially, with his fiery picking, has been an attraction for the younger crowd. Ronnie has also stepped into a leadership position, co-producing, with Jerry Douglas, “The Family,” and producing “Del and the Boys.””They’re my ears,” said McCoury of his younger bandmates. “They hear things that I don’t hear. They bring me songs that I would never hear of.”And Ronnie sounds like a young me. So that makes it easy to sing.”But it is Delano Floyd McCoury who not only gives the band its name, but its character as well. McCoury’s voice is the definition of the “high and lonesome” sound, a sleek, high-pitched instrument that is weighty enough for the bone-chilling gospel number “Get Down on Your Knees and Pray,” and light enough to cover the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Nashville Cats.”While the McCoury Band maintains the traditional string-band instrumentation, McCoury says it is the selection of material that has given the group its modern feel. “Del and the Boys” breaks out of the bluegrass mold with complex chord progressions, and covers like Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” The tunes all have an emotional depth: “Recovering Pharisee” is an intensely personal battle with sin; “Count Me Out” is about as definitive as a so-long song gets. “When I first heard this music – Bill Monroe with Flatt and Scruggs, that great band – I couldn’t get that sound out of my head,” said McCoury. “And we did those same songs that Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs recorded. But I soon found out I had to write my own songs, and that’s how your style comes about – the songs you write and choose. “It’s a matter of taste. And your mind has to be open to a good song or a good story. You never know where you’re going to learn a good song. I never know what I’m looking for when I come across a song. And I decided I’d be that way a long time ago. I get ’em from everywhere, man.”As for why bluegrass is having such popularity now, McCoury has a bunch of ideas. He says the music is difficult, and young musicians are drawn to the challenge. He credits the phenomenal success of the soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” which he refers to – affectionately – as “this movie.” (McCoury did not appear on the album.) He points to the country stars – a list that includes Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton and Patti Loveless – who have returned to their bluegrass roots. He says the mid-’80s formation of the International Bluegrass Music Association was a big step.And there is the volume factor: “Music got as loud as it could get,” said McCoury. “It couldn’t get any louder. I think that damaged some people’s ears. And then it started getting softer.”Whatever the reason behind it, McCoury is reveling in the bluegrass boom. “It’s the best time I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of hard jobs. I was raised on a farm; I know hard work. This is the easiest thing I ever did.”The Del McCoury Band opens the Wheeler Opera House’s Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music with a performance tonight, Thursday, March 21. The Flying Dog Bluegrass Band opens.Mike Marshall & Darol Anger: The Duo perform in the series tomorrow, Friday, March 22, with Dan Sheridan opening. The Tim O’Brien Band plays on Saturday, March 23, with the Lone Pine Bluegrass Band opening. The series concludes with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder on Sunday, March 24.