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.
Father knows best
After Bill Monroe sees him play with Jack Cooke at a small club in nearby Baltimore, Md., he offers McCoury a job on the spot. His one-year stint in 1963 as a Blue Grass Boy was brief, but Monroe’s influence lingers to this day in McCoury’s music. After hearing Del’s distinctive high tenor, Monroe switches him to guitar and makes him a lead singer. McCoury never went back to playing banjo and became known primarily as a singer.
He dropped out of Monroe’s band when he and Jean got married in 1964. They briefly moved to California where he played with the Golden State Boys, but moved back home to Pennsylvania shortly afterward. To support a growing family, he worked full-time in the logging industry and in construction, playing music in clubs and festivals on weekends and during summers.
His sons, Ronnie and Rob, naturally developed an interest in music at a young age. “They saw some of the biggest musicians in the world when they would go with me,” McCoury says. When the boys were teenagers, they listened to other music, playing electric guitars and Southern rock popular at the time. “At the same time, they played their bluegrass instruments, too,” McCoury says.
Monroe’s imprint on McCoury’s music continued when the two played at a festival in New York. “Bill took a liking to Ronnie,” he says of his oldest son, who was 11 at the time. “He would put his hat on him, give him his mandolin and say, ‘Here, you play this.’ That got Ronnie into it.”
Ronnie joined the band in 1981 when he was 14, starting out playing rhythm on the mandolin and taking a few breaks. But that changed in a hurry. “He got good really fast because he played all the time,” he says of Ronnie, who would go on to win eight consecutive IBMA Mandolin Player Of The Year awards.
Four years later, youngest son Rob would join them on stage, filling in at first on bass. When Del’s banjo player quit, Rob reluctantly stepped into the limelight on the five-string. “He’s been playing banjo since he was nine years old. He got really good at it,” according to Del. “He came in there and he knew a lot of stuff I was doing already. Sitting around at home, he would play tunes with records.”
Jason Carter, a fiddle player from Kentucky, joined the band at age 19 in 1992. Rounded out by Mike Bub on bass, the Del McCoury Band hit full stride in the 1990s. Remarkably, the band has had only one change in personnel, when Alan Bartram replaced Bub on bass in 2005. The biggest break came in 1992, when the McCourys took a leap of faith and moved to Nashville at the urging of Ricky Skaggs and his wife, Sharon White.
The kids were out of school and the timing seemed right. If things didn’t work out, they could always move back home to Pennsylvania. “When we did become independent, we moved here and got busier and busier. I never had a manager until I moved here,” McCoury says from his home near Nashville.
The move sparked an epic run of award-winning releases for the band, which won IBMA’s prestigious Entertainer Of The Year award nine times to go along with Del’s four Male Vocalist Of The Year trophies. Fueled by the energy and musicianship of his band and tight harmonies with son Ronnie, the Del McCoury Band soared to the top of the bluegrass music world. In their stage shows, the band popularized the single mic style that harkens back to bluegrass music’s early days.
Through the years, he has served as a bluegrass ambassador, and stars from all genres—rock, country, jazz, and bluegrass—clamor to play and sing with him. On stage, he’s been joined by Trey Anastasio and Phish, Steve Earle, as well as Dierks Bentley, Vince Gill, and and most recently, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons.
Del and his band have introduced bluegrass to new generations of fans at festivals large and small. He can’t explain why the younger crowd seems so drawn to him. “I don’t know. They’ve been good to us,” he says. “It could be because we’ve played with some of those jam bands through the years.”
DelFest, his annual music festival in Cumberland, Md., enters its seventh year in 2014 and continues to soar in popularity, attracting a multi-generational crowd from the Northeast and beyond each Memorial Day weekend. “It’s really grown. We are about to max it out,” he says of the fairgrounds in the Appalachian Mountains midway between Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh.
Del and Woody
Recently, Del was granted a rare opportunity to reach across the walls of time and forge a collaboration with folk legend Woody Guthrie, who died in 1967. After McCoury’s band played a tribute show in Oklahoma, Guthrie’s daughter Nora asked him to write music to accompany some of the songwriter’s newly discovered lyrics. Woody Guthrie was a prolific writer and took copious notes, detailing where he was when he wrote each poem. Some were handwritten. Others were typed. All were from the years 1935 to 1949.
McCoury studied the songwriter’s style, but quickly found a musical kinship with the man who wrote “Philadelphia Lawyer” to the tune of “Red River Valley.” “When I would look at the words, it was easy to get the melody to it,” he says. “I could tell the tempo and time he had in mind.” He has 12 songs written and recorded and the music written for six more. There’s no release date yet for the project, though the band played a show last summer at the Caramoor in New York called “Del and Woody” that was videotaped for future airing. The project showcases the Guthrie and McCoury family legacies in their respective genres, blending folk and bluegrass. “Nora told me, ‘If my dad could have afforded a band, this is the band he would have liked to have had,’” McCoury says. “It is a great honor and a great chance to do something like this.”
Guthrie’s keen eye and sense of humor are evident in the lyrics for a song called “Wimmin’s Hats” written in 1940 on the day after he wrote “This Land Is Your Land.” It’s easy to imagine the singer from the Dust Bowl peering out the window of his hotel room in New York City at an unfamiliar landscape. The song describes the contraptions he saw on the heads of big-city women. Some looked like ice cream cones, another looked like mouse traps piled around a woman’s ears,” Del chuckles. “You know, I liked his style.”
One night in Florida
It’s mid-September, but still the height of summer in subtropical Florida. McCoury’s gold-and-maroon tour bus sits front and center in the parking lot of Skipper’s Smokehouse, dwarfing the old-Florida haunt with a leaky tin roof and pothole-filled parking lot.
At Skipper’s in north Tampa, it’s all about the food and the music—both are served up no-nonsense Florida-style. Waitresses serve grouper Reuben sandwiches and other dishes on Styrofoam plates with plastic forks. A half-carafe of wine chills in an ice-filled galvanized metal bucket, ready to pour into clear plastic cups. Next door to the restaurant, the storied outdoor entertainment venue sits under a tangled canopy of live oak limbs and Spanish moss. The covered seating circles the trees, and a full stand of mature bamboo frames one corner of the stage area. Can lights hang from the bare wood ceiling, and they are just that—metal coffee cans dangling from strings.
During sound check, McCoury sings “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight,” mourning about the rain gently falling. Right on cue before the show, to celebrate radio station WMNF’s 34th birthday, Florida’s daily afternoon thunderstorm blows in, sending patrons scurrying for cover. The temperature drops slightly to the mid-80s, but the humidity soars to a hundred percent.
Much like the Tampa community radio station’s programming, the audience is an eclectic mix. There’s a Florida original—an older gentleman wearing cutoff denim bibbed overalls and a cowboy hat. Smartly dressed young professionals sip imported beers and slow dance. Retirees in T-shirts and shorts try to out-bluegrass each other by citing a laundry list of festivals and concerts they’ve attended.
When McCoury takes the stage, Skipper’s is hopping. Concertgoers stand about a dozen deep in front of the stage, taking photos with their smartphones, shooting videos, jumping up and down, clogging. The bowl-shaped amphitheater is packed. The band kicks off the show with “Dry My Tears And Move On.” Taking frequent breaks to towel off, McCoury plays the title cut from The Streets Of Baltimore album, announcing that half the proceeds from the sale of the new CD that night will benefit the radio station. Fans quickly line up to buy the latest release from his wife, Jean, at a merchandise table in the back of the theater.
On this last stop in a three-show Florida swing, Jason Carter shines during a spirited rendition of the Chubby Wise fiddle tune “Orange Blossom Special.” Bass player Bartram sings beautifully on “Kentucky Waltz.” Sounding eerily similar but just a hair deeper than his dad, Ronnie sings the Bob Dylan tune, “Walk Out In The Rain.”
No two Del McCoury Band shows are the same. Like his mentor Bill Monroe, McCoury fields requests from the audience. After featuring his band members, they launch into shouted-out requests, including “All Aboard,” “Working On A Building,” “Nashville Cats,” “Backsliding Blues,” and the Richard Thompson-penned rock song that’s become McCoury’s signature bluegrass anthem, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”
Florida’s heat and humidity knock McCoury’s Martin D-18 out of tune. He, Ronnie, and Bartram run off stage to tune up. Rob and Carter fill in the gap with an instrumental. For an encore, the band plays a medley of McCoury classics—“Rain And Snow”/“High On A Mountain.”
Outside in the stifling heat, Del and Ronnie pause for pictures, sign memorabilia, and greet fans on their way across the gravel parking lot to the air-conditioned bus. Skipper’s bills itself as the “best blues club in America,” but on this night, bluegrass rules.
Still in the Game
At 74, McCoury is busier than ever and very much still in the game. His project of hand-picked songs, The Streets Of Baltimore won a Grammy and the first single, “Big Blue Raindrops,” climbs to near the top of the bluegrass airplay charts. He says his band is planning to record a second project with friends from New Orleans, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
McCoury still tours extensively with his band. When his boys hit the road as the Travelin’ McCourys in 2013, he filled in the gaps by going out on the road with mandolinist Sam Bush in an acoustic two-man show. Bush even talks him into dusting off his banjo and practicing for a few instrumentals. “I got to where I could play ‘Sally Goodin’ pretty good,” he laughs.
In 2012, he says his wife Jean and manager Stan Strickland asked him: “If you could take a band out on the road, who would it be?” McCoury reeled off a list of bluegrass hall-of-famers, thinking there’s no way they could land them all. After a few phone calls, the next day, the team starts booking a year-long run of shows for the Masters of Bluegrass, which includes McCoury, J.D. Crowe on banjo, Bobby Osborne on mandolin, Bobby Hicks on fiddle, and Del’s younger brother Jerry on bass.
At IBMA’s 2013 World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, N.C., McCoury is instantly recognizable with his silver hair piled high in a pompadour and a profile that looks like it should anchor one end of bluegrass music’s Mount Rushmore, if there was such a memorial. When he steps up to the microphone and leans in to sing, fans know they are in for a treat. At Thursday night’s IBMA Awards Show, Del and the boys get a standing ovation after performing “All Aboard.” The next night, there’s a full house for the Del McCoury Band at the outdoor Red Hat Amphitheater.
Later that evening, the “Epic Collaboration” features winners of IBMA awards in the inaugural year of 1990: Del, Béla Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Mark Schatz, and Tony Rice. Newly crowned Fiddle Player Of The Year Jason Carter fills in for Alison Krauss, who was unable to perform because of a vocal issue. Clearly, it’s a special night when bluegrass music’s best musicians crowd behind the stage to watch and listen. No one is surprised when Del steals the show. Singing “In The Name Of Love”—a ballad by the rock band U2—McCoury’s voice rings high and true in a duet with Bush, bouncing off the convention center’s wall and blowing minds, one note at a time. Only a singer so beloved by the bluegrass faithful and rooted in its past could step that far outside of the box. The performance brings a thunderous ovation from the crowd.
“The most fun you have is the little time on stage,” Del reflects. “Traveling is the hard part, but I never minded that either. Years ago, I could lay down on a gravel road and go to sleep,” he says.
Lifelong love of music
Del McCoury’s journey has taken him to the pinnacle of bluegrass music. He and his band have won every award imaginable, from IBMAs to Grammys to the National Endowment for the Arts. He was inducted into the IBMA Hall Of Fame in 2011. In November 2013, the State of North Carolina named a five-mile stretch of road—Route 261 in Mitchell County, north of Bakersville—in his honor. The families of both McCoury and his wife Jean hailed from the rural area near Glen Ayre and Buladean before moving to Pennsylvania in the 1940s. The whole McCoury clan, including his daughter, two daughters-in-law, and his seven grandchildren attended the ceremony to christen the Del McCoury Highway. “It’s a great honor,” he says.
Later that same night in Nashville, he celebrated his ten-year anniversary as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. But for McCoury, music has never been about the awards, although he’s appreciative and humbled by the accolades. Asked how he wants to be remembered, his answer is refreshingly simple. “I’m just a guy that wants to play music. Years ago, I would play 24 hours a day if I could. I was struck by music so hard when I was a young guy, and I never did lose interest. I could play for three days and sleep very little…jam with other musicians. I just love to play.”