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JamGrass Boy

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer
Stewart Oksenhorn photo.The current Del McCoury Band lineup, including fiddler Jason Carter, banjoist Robbie McCoury, mandolinist Ronnie McCoury, bassist Mike Bub and guitarist Del McCoury, has been intact for 11 years.
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When Ronnie McCoury started high school, in the rural York County, Pa., town of Glen Rock, it came as something of a shock that there was music other than bluegrass. But for McCoury, that’s the way it was growing up the son of Del McCoury, a one-time member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and the leader of his own well-regarded band, the Dixie Pals.”We grew up with bluegrass festivals, concerts, picking parties,” said the younger McCoury. “Then, when I hit my later teens and hanging out with all my buddies playing sports, I started listening to different kinds of music. I didn’t know too much about anything other than bluegrass, and my friends were listening to Led Zeppelin and Rush.” When he went to his first rock concert, by the power trio Rush, McCoury could hardly believe his eyes and ears. “I couldn’t believe all the people, and all that music out of three guys,” he marveled.Rush blew his mind, but the Grateful Dead would have a more profound impact. The Dead’s guitarist, Jerry Garcia, was a frequent collaborator with mandolinist David Grisman. Grisman was not only a friend of McCoury’s father, but a significant influence on the younger McCoury’s own musicianship. The connection intrigued McCoury, and he jumped at the chance to see the Dead when they came to Philadelphia in 1987.”When I was 15 or so, David Grisman sent my dad a bunch of his albums,” said McCoury, who had taken violin lessons as a 9-year-old, and switched to mandolin at 13. “That opened my mind up to a different way of playing the mandolin, other than straight bluegrass. I knew he had played with the Grateful Dead, so I had to check out what that was all about. I went to see the Dead with Bob Dylan, and spent a week in my buddy’s pickup truck.”McCoury became a Deadhead – 30 shows under his belt by the time the Dead called it quits – and a privileged one at that. Thanks to the Grisman connection, and the fact that Garcia was an acquaintance of his dad’s, McCoury went backstage for many a Dead show. One time, he sold a bunch of old-time banjos he had found in Pennsylvania to Garcia. Ronnie even took his father to see the Dead in the early ’90s.”He didn’t know what to think of the music,” said McCoury. “All he knew was the name, Grateful Dead, and all that went with that. But he thought it was good folky rock. I don’t know what he thought of the `Drums’ though.”The Del McCoury Band will perform tonight, July 4, at 6 p.m. as part of the Snowmass Free Summer of Music series on Fanny Hill, adjacent to the Snowmass Village mall.Much of the current bluegrass revival is chalked up to the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” CD. The soundtrack to the Coen brothers film, featuring acoustic music stars Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley and more, has sold over 8 million copies, and won an Album of the Year Grammy.But the “O Brother” soundtrack is 3 years old and off the charts, and the bluegrass surge doesn’t seem to have subsided. What seems to be fueling bluegrass’ high profile as much as anything is the embrace of the music by the jam-band scene. The most recent issue of Relix – a magazine devoted to the Grateful Dead at the beginning, and which now chronicles the jam-band scene – has a multipart section on bluegrass. Popular jam bands like String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon got their start playing bluegrass and have retained, to some degree, that flavor. Bluegrass-derived acts like Yonder Mountain String Band, Bla Fleck & the Flecktones and Acoustic Syndicate turn up frequently on jam-band festival lineups. At the center of the nexus between jam and grass is Ronnie McCoury. The Del McCoury Band was featured at last year’s initial jam-band extravaganza, Bonnaroo (staged in Manchester, Tenn., 60 miles from Nashville, the center of the bluegrass scene). McCoury has jammed onstage a handful of times with Phish, reigning kings of the jam. McCoury, who lives in Nashville, has taken to introducing his pals to Phish. Thanks to McCoury, Ricky Skaggs has picked with Phish, and Wynonna sang a version of “Free Bird” at a Phish show in Tennessee. McCoury says it is a dream project of his to record an album of Grateful Dead material with the greats of bluegrass.While the Del McCoury Band is easily the most respected current act in traditional bluegrass circles, having won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year title seven times, it is mandolinist Ronnie who seems to capture the attention of the jam-band contingent. The group’s soloists – banjoist Robbie McCoury (Ronnie’s brother) and fiddler Jason Carter, in addition to Ronnie – are first-rate. The 63-year-old Del himself is in the small handful of bluegrass’ finest singers. And the quintet, rounded out by bassist Mike Bub, is as good an example of an ensemble as could be imagined, the result of 11 years as a stable unit. The group has Del’s name, but Ronnie’s signature. He co-produced with Jerry Douglas the group’s 1999 CD “The Family,” and, with Del, 2001’s “Del and the Boys” and the upcoming “It’s Just the Night,” due for release Aug. 12. Apart from Del, he is the band’s only composer, contributing an instrumental track to each of the band’s recent CDs. As a singer, McCoury gets the ultimate compliment from his father: “Ronnie sounds like a young me.” And when it comes to soloing, no one does it better – or longer – than Ronnie.”Usually, they play just so many bars on the lead,” said McCoury of traditional bluegrass soloing. “Along the way, there have been guys like Grisman and Sam Bush who showed me you could jam a little more. Those are my heroes.”Despite those jamming tendencies, McCoury leans well in the direction of the traditional. McCoury was first captivated by the mandolin when, at the age of 13, he saw his father play with Bill Monroe at a September concert at New York’s Lincoln Center. “Something that night really clicked,” said McCoury, who taught himself mandolin mostly by learning everything Bill Monroe had recorded. “And my dad didn’t have a regular mandolin player at the time. By May, I was onstage with him. It was kind of a sink-or-swim thing. I haven’t missed a show with him since.”After younger brother Robbie joined the group in 1988, the McCourys moved from Pennsylvania to Nashville. By 1992, they had recruited two more youngsters, Jason Carter and Mike Bub, and became the Del McCoury Band. Within a few years, they were turning heads in and out of the bluegrass world.For all his appeal to the jam-band audience, McCoury has stuck to his acoustic guns. Unlike Leftover Salmon’s Drew Emmitt and String Cheese Incident’s Michael Kang, McCoury hasn’t moved to the electrified version of the mandolin. Even when he wanders outside his main gig for the occasional side project, he stays within the acoustic boundaries. Perhaps his most ambitious outside project was 1999’s “Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza,” co-produced by McCoury and Grisman. The two-CD set featured eight top mandolinists and Del McCoury on guitar playing old-time bluegrass and folks songs in traditional style. On his one solo CD, 2000’s “Heartbreak Town,” McCoury stayed acoustic, bringing in pickers Grisman, David Grier, Bla Fleck and Stuart Duncan. McCoury, alone or with the band, has recorded with Dolly Parton, Steve Earle, the Chieftains, Vince Gill and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, all acts in the acoustic realm.”The acoustic instrument is a challenge. It’s hard to do,” he explained. “It’s just you and the instrument.”The traditional approach extends to one microphone onstage, a technique that started to disappear around the time McCoury was born. The one-mike setup gives an added dimension to the band’s performance: In arraying themselves around the mike, the band members engage in an unplanned, but entertaining, choreography.”My dad, when he played in the ’50s and ’60s, there was one mike,” said McCoury. “He said when they went to multiple mikes, in the late ’60s, it took away from the music. When you’re playing with multiple mikes, you’re at the mercy of the sound man. With one mike, we mix the music ourselves, and it makes a difference. We’re in control. We can harmonize so much better because it’s just our ears – no monitors or mikes. That’s the best sound you can get.”McCoury even dresses the part of the old-style bluegrasser, wearing suit and tie onstage. “It’s natural to me,” he said. “Because I’ve been 22 years doing it, and seen my dad all my life doing it. I’ve always dressed the part, because my dad always did it.”The one area where McCoury breaks from tradition most is in song selection. But even when they stray outside the bluegrass repertoire, choosing songs with chord progressions unfamiliar in standard bluegrass, they look for connections to their roots. They have recorded John Sebastian’s folk-rock hit “Nashville Cats,” a song about all the great pickers in Nashville. And they earned a 2002 International Bluegrass Music Association Song of the Year award for their version of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” a song which references Bill Monroe’s “Molly & Tenbrooks.”


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