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McCoury and band are bluegrass missionaries

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Singer-guitarist Del McCoury leads his bluegrass group, the Del McCoury Band, to a show March 6 at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen. (Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times Weekly)
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Quite a few people are eager to latch onto bluegrass singer Del McCoury.

This May will see the debut of Delfest, a three-day gathering in rural Maryland that will feature such top names in acoustic music as Vince Gill, David Grisman, Bela Fleck, and the Del McCoury Band, the long-running quintet led by McCoury, and featuring two of his sons, mandolinist Ronnie and banjoist Robbie. Last year, Sony Red, a branch of the monstrous BMG Music, signed a deal with McCoury Music, the label McCoury started in 2003, to distribute the label’s CDs. Among the artists to join the McCoury stable is Merle Haggard, who released “The Bluegrass Sessions” ” the country legend’s first-ever bluegrass recording ” in October. In mid-2006, Sirius Satellite Radio launched the bluegrass program, “Hand Picked with Del McCoury”; host McCoury recently taped his 72nd episode in the series.

It’s quite a leap from when McCoury first tuned his ears to bluegrass music. Growing up in York County, Pa., captivated by the playing of banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs, McCoury was certain he had a very private relationship going.

“When I started seriously listening to this music, when I heard Earl Scruggs, it was a local music. It wasn’t big; it wasn’t a lot of fans,” said the 69-year-old McCoury from his home in Hendersonville, Tenn., a town some 20 miles north of Nashville where the neighbors include musicians Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, the Oak Ridge Boys and, until his death in 2003, Johnny Cash. “And when I came along [as a musician, in the late ’50s], all the guys and girls my age were listening to Elvis Presley. They didn’t know what I was listening to.”

Truth is, McCoury isn’t necessarily the instigator of all this recent activity attached to his name. Delfest was the idea of Roy Carter, a founder of California’s High Sierra Music Festival, which the McCoury Band has played several times. McCoury and the members of his band have a big hand in booking the acts, but the one singer McCoury most wanted to have at his festival, singer Patti Loveless, declined, as she wasn’t scheduled to be touring at the time.

The “Hand Picked” program features a good bit of McCoury’s ad-libbing, and the eponymous host remains the authority on music from the ’40s and ’50s. But the show is scripted by John Weissberger, a musician and journalist who also selects the more recent music to be aired.

“I’ve kind of lost track of the new musicians,” confesses the talkative, unabashed McCoury, “because I’m on the road all the time.” Of his limited involvement in Delfest, he adds that it was something he’d wanted to do for years, “but I figured it would be a big undertaking, and I didn’t understand what you had to do. It’s looking good ” advance tickets sold, camping locations ” all that stuff I don’t know about.

“I’m a guitarist and singer.”

Which is why concert promoters, record executives and even other musicians want to be associated with McCoury. He’s not the hottest picker bluegrass has seen, but he is blessed with a pure keening tenor that seems to define the “high and lonesome” sound first laid out by bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe.

Probably more significant than his individual abilities, McCoury has assembled one of the strongest ensembles in the music’s 70-year history. After a year, from 1963-64, in Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, McCoury spent several decades leading the Dixie Pals. It was rough going as rock was the commercial rage, and McCoury mostly kept his day job as a timber cutter. But in 1991, at the age of 52, he decided to go for broke. With his two sons in the group, McCoury changed the name of the act and relocated to Nashville. He kept his house in Pennsylvania, just in case.

Even though McCoury calls bluegrass “the slowest-growing music there is,” things have gone spectacularly well for his band. With Jason Carter on fiddle, and Mike Bub ” since replaced by Alan Bartram ” on bass, the Del McCoury Band has helped lead bluegrass toward mainstream culture. They were the first bluegrass act to appear at the massive Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee; they have played Carnegie Hall and opened for the jam band Phish. Two months ago, they appeared at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in a tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis. (Del had opened shows for the piano rocker in the ’60s.)

While bringing bluegrass to places and audiences that neither Bill Monroe nor the younger Del McCoury could have imagined, the McCoury Band has stayed remarkably true to its sound. Their recordings and concerts are all-acoustic affairs; the songs stick to traditional bluegrass subjects: the Southern landscape, humility, cheating women. Ronnie McCoury, who has an affection for the Grateful Dead, might extend a solo to jamming lengths, but the music would fit in well at the most conservative bluegrass festival going. “The Company We Keep,” the band’s 2005 release, earned a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.

If anything, the group has moved in a more traditional direction, at least on their recordings. Their latest release, from 2006, is the all-gospel CD, “The Promised Land.” (Two future CDs are planned: their first live album, and the studio recording, “Moneyland.”)

The church “was the first time I sung or played in public,” said McCoury about his attachment to gospel material. “We were missionary Baptists, and we’re mostly not allowed to play instruments in church. But our preacher was the bass singer in our quartet, so we were. So it’s always been a part of my singing, part of my life.”

McCoury is as modest as they come. (“The Company We Keep” opens with “Nothin’ Special,” a celebration of simplicity.) So when asked how much his band has contributed to bluegrass’s rise, he says “I’ve never figured that out,” and deflects attention to the advent of bluegrass festivals and the establishment, in the mid-’80s, of the International Bluegrass Music Association (which has named the McCoury Band its entertainer of the year eight times).

McCoury allows that he and the band have made an honest effort to take bluegrass to the next level. Their predecessors, he notes, had a tougher time, so they feel an obligation to do something good for the music.

“We try to represent the music the best we can,” said McCoury. “We try to look good and talk civilized to people.”

As the reception to bluegrass has changed, so has McCoury’s view on styles that don’t involve banjos and mandolins. “When I was young, I thought, ‘This is the only music there is.’ Nothing else excited me,” he said. “But as I got older, I learned it’s all intertwined. It’s rhythm, melody, notes. That’s music.

“I had cousins, girls cousins, who loved Frank Sinatra. I didn’t know who he was and I didn’t care.”

March at Belly Up Aspen opens with a blizzard of indie-rock. Monday, March 3, features a lineup headed by the multifaceted Maryland band Clutch and Indiana’s dark-tinged Murder by Death. The following night, Arizona’s country-punk band Supersuckers headline, with Denver alt-country band the Railbenders opening. SoCal rockers Fu Manchu top a hard-core bill, with ASG and Saviours, on Thursday, March 6. More sounds of Southern Cal arrive March 14 with ska band Reel Big Fish, and fellow ska-sters Chase Long Beach opening.

And for perhaps the ultimate jolt of L.A., the early punk group X ” with its original lineup of John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake ” hits Belly Up.

Those looking for gentler sounds are directed to shows by Neil Diamond tribute band Super Diamond on March 22; the John Popper Project, with Salvador Santana (yes, son of Carlos) on March 28; and two nights of reggae group the Wailers, March 29-30. Or the month of April, which features New Orleans’ Radiators (April 2); British techno-soul band Morcheeba (April 5); Johnny Cash tribute act Cash’d Out (April 11); two nights of Grateful Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra (April 12-13); and melodic Canadian duo Tegan and Sara (April 30).

And save up something ” money and energy ” for the first full week of May. Bass ace Victor Wooten starts off an impressive run May 7, followed by roots rockers Hot Tuna on May 9, and Canadian alt-country singer Kathleen Edwards on March 10.

Down toward the other end of the valley, a new room gets inaugurated in style when the subdudes, soul-rockers with one foot in New Orleans and the other in the Front Range, play the Carbondale Rec Center. The April 11 show is also a 25th birthday celebration for ‘Bonedale’s mighty KDNK community radio station.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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