In the summer of 1950 in York County, Pennsylvania, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys are in town to play a show at a local drive-in. An 11-year-old boy is itching to see the Grand Ole Opry star and he talks his older sister into letting him tag along. “I begged to go with her. I wasn’t interested in the movie,” Del McCoury says.
Monroe and his boys (whose group at that time included a girl), played between movie features at the Cross Keys Drive-In theater in rural New Oxford, Pa. Monroe’s music played through the metal drive-in speakers hanging from car windows. “He played on top of the refreshment stand. At the end of the songs, everybody would blow their horns,” McCoury recalls. “I stood outside where I could hear them.” Six decades later, he says he clearly remembers the band’s lineup: Monroe on mandolin, Bessie Lee Mauldin on bass, Joe Stuart on banjo, Jimmy Martin singing lead and playing guitar, and Joe Meadows on fiddle.
A few years later, the aspiring banjo player goes to see Flatt & Scruggs at a music park in Hellam, Pa., about ten miles east of York. Scruggs’ picking inspired him to take up the instrument and sparked a lifelong love of the music that would later become known as bluegrass. “I had already started playing (banjo), and that was the first time I really could see what he was doing. It really helped me a whole lot to see what he did,” McCoury says of Scruggs’ signature three-finger banjo rolls.
McCoury has traveled far and wide, but never strayed far from the music he heard as a young boy in Pennsylvania. “I liked that sound I heard with Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs in the early days,” he says.