Del McCoury

Del-LeadDel McCoury
The Bluegrass Legend’s
North Carolina Mountain Roots And Life At 80

With his hair neatly cut and silver in color, Del McCoury has always had the appearance of a bluegrass elder statesman. Still, it’s hard to believe that the IBMA Hall of Famer is about to turn 80 years old in February, born in 1939 in York County, Pa. McCoury, however, is still a vibrant performer who tours nationwide every year. He just released his latest studio album, Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass, a rollicking set of excellent music featuring his long-time band including sons Ronnie and Rob McCoury, Alan Bartram, and Jason Carter.
“I started school when I was five years old,” McCoury shares. “I had three brothers and sisters that were already going to school, so I thought, ‘I’ve got to go to school, too. This must be fun.’ We had to walk a long way to school, so the teacher gave me books. Now, I didn’t know if he realized I would pass into the second grade or not, but there wasn’t much in the way of kindergarten back in those days. So, I went to school at five and he gave me books with the first graders and I would do my assignments. And, I just kept right on going even though I wasn’t old enough to be in school. I didn’t flunk a class. I liked school for the first seven years, and I was 17 when I graduated.”
I first interviewed McCoury in 2004, which was at the end of an amazing run of the Del McCoury Band winning the IBMA Entertainer Of The Year Award for a record nine times. The interview back then centered on his views of music, his open-minded approach to picking songs to record and about the wide array of diverse musicians he has collaborated with over the years.
Now, 14 years later, McCoury is in the mood to bring his family’s Appalachian history to light. York County, Pennsylvania is where he grew up, yet the Southern mountain blood flowing through McCoury’s veins is real. In 2013, Mitchell County, North Carolina, decided to officially name a section of Route 261 in the small town of Bakersville “Del McCoury Highway.” McCoury tried to tell the folks at the Mitchell County Board of Commissioners that while his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even his older siblings were born there and lived there, he was not a native of the area.
McCoury’s son Ronnie is the one family member who has taken an interest in the genealogy of the McCoury Family and as he puts it, “After talking to my uncle, who is nine years older than Dad, my grandmother was pregnant with Dad when they moved to Pennsylvania in 1938.” What that means, of course, is that Del McCoury was conceived in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina.
I drove to Bakersville, N.C., to experience the same land from which the McCoury Family sprang. I was also looking for the “Del McCoury Highway.” I found it just outside of town on Route 261, which is the back road to one of the most celebrated and unique mountains in the Blue Ridge chain—Roan Mountain. When McCoury refers to “going up on The Roan,” that’s the five-mile long famous ridge he’s talking about.
Roan Mountain features the largest stretch of grassy balds in all of the Appalachian Mountains range and is also a part of the Appalachian Trail. The mountain is considered so special a place that fellow bluegrass artists The Kruger Brothers were commissioned to compose the “Roan Mountain Suite” in honor of the park, which they recorded as an album with the Kontras Quartet.
“My dad lived on that road, Route 261, that goes from Bakersville up to the top of Roan Mountain and then over into Tennessee,” Del says. “Roan Mountain is really an attraction. I used to go up there before they built a walkway where you could look out from the top of the mountain. Back then, it was just a rock. The last one to live at the old homeplace was an uncle of mine named Floyd McCoury. The house was by a little church right before you get up to Glen Ayre, that little settlement passed Bakersville. The church is on the left and on the right there’s a little driveway that goes down to the right and crosses that creek. That’s where my papa grew up. My great grandpa took my dad around and showed him where he homesteaded and drove in stakes there, and he showed my dad all of those stakes. That became the little old farm that they grew up on.”
In the 1940s, a very young Del went back to Mitchell County when his parents took him there to visit kin after the end of World War II. Just like any kid’s experience of traveling to see the old folks out in the country, those memories influenced McCoury and have stayed with him for 75 years.
“We went there a lot after the war was over. During the war, you couldn’t buy tires, you couldn’t buy gas, and you couldn’t buy sugar. Of course, we really didn’t need sugar all that bad. As soon as that war was over—I would have been about five or six years old then—my parents wanted to go down and visit their relatives. During the war, they went back a few times when someone would die, but they traveled by train as that was the only way they could get there then. But after that war was over, Papa had a 1932 DeSoto and we drove to North Carolina in that thing and visited all of those people, and then went up on The Roan.” (The highest point on the mountain is 6,285 feet above sea level. About forty miles away is Mount Mitchell, the tallest mountain in the U.S. east of The Rockies at 6,683 feet above sea level.)
“My uncle had a cattle truck and he had a canvas that he would put over the back of it,” Del recalls. “We would go up on The Roan and would cook out. In those days, on the road that went up there, my uncle would have to pull up the cattle truck, then back it up and then go again because it was an old dirt road with all of those switchbacks on it. It was kind of dangerous, really, because those old vehicles didn’t have good brakes on them. I think he had a 1941 GMC one-ton truck with dual wheels. Those old guys were proud of those trucks. When we ate our meal up there, I can remember my uncles taking a cut of beef and laying it on one rock and then they would hit it with another rock to tenderize that beef. Then, they’d cook it over the fire. That was the funniest thing.
“It was exciting because it was so different from where we lived. It’s kind of hilly there in York County, Pa., but that’s mostly for farming. Meanwhile, down in those mountains in North Carolina, about the only thing you could do is work for a moonshiner back then. That was about it. But my dad worked in the timber industry and, back in the day, he drove a team of horses while working over in Buladean, near the Tennessee border. Buladean is one of the last towns on the road headed to Johnson City, Tennessee. It’s one of the last settlements before you go over Iron Mountain Gap and down into Tennessee. My dad went over there and worked for a guy that had a big sawmill, driving a team and hauling logs out. Dad also worked for Scruggs Construction Company. I told Earl Scruggs about it, who was also from western North Carolina, but Earl didn’t know who they were. Scruggs Construction came up to build a road across Iron Mountain and they were looking for guys to work and Papa went to work for them driving a team of horses, running a pan scraper that could pull grade.”
The full name of Del’s father was Grover Cleveland McCoury. During World War II, Grover decided to migrate to the greater Baltimore area to look for a good job and a better life. It was a part of The Great Migration that happened all over the Appalachian Mountains during that period.
“My uncle Emmitt left and my dad left and then uncle Floyd eventually left as well. A lot of people from that part of the country came to Baltimore because they had the Martin Aircraft Factory up there. They had the steel mills there and the ship building and all of it during the second World War. That’s why there was a lot of bluegrass music in that area. I’m sure that’s also true of the Kentucky and West Virginia people that went to Ohio during that time, and so on. Somebody told Papa about the work available up in Pennsylvania and he made the move, and I was the first of three kids born up there.”
As the bluegrass world knows, Del worked many day jobs while trying to make it as a bluegrass musician in the early years of his career. He was eventually hired to play with Bill Monroe in the early 1960s.
“A lot of people ask me now, ‘What did you learn from Bill Monroe?’ I say, ‘Well, I learned from Bill just standing there and doing what he was doing.’ Bill didn’t like lazy people. I grew up on a farm and I know that you got to work. Whatever it is you’re doing, you need to work if you’re going to be successful. Bill expected that out of people and it came naturally to me when it was time to get out on that stage. I knew I had to get it. Bill was a hard worker and he would get out there and really put it out. If lazy people came into the band, they didn’t last long because Bill would ride them. He would ride them until they quit. He didn’t have to fire them.”
Back in those days with Monroe in 1963, McCoury lived in Nashville, Tenn. “When I was with Bill, I was living in a hotel here in town. It was the Clarkson Hotel up on 7th avenue. They tore it down, but it was right across from the War Memorial building. They had the Grand Ole Opry there years before. I used to walk through the War Memorial building when I would go down to the old Hermitage Hotel to get my hair cut and my shoes shined and all of that stuff. From what I can remember, it cost $2.60 a night to stay there. Of course, the bathroom wasn’t in your room—it was down the hall. There was no air conditioning, so if you got hot you had to raise the window.”
McCoury was with Monroe when he purchased his first tour bus. “Bill bought the first bus that he ever owned when I was with him in 1963. I’ll tell you what happened. Bill knew that I’d driven a dump truck when I was very young. I was just out of high school and I graduated high school early, and my dad bought this dump truck and I began to drive that thing. You didn’t have to have a special license to drive one back then. Bill said, ‘Del, I want you to go with me. I’m going to go and look at a bus.’ Back then, we were riding in a 1959 Oldsmobile station wagon, a Super 88. That was a good ride. It was a big vehicle. So, we went out to Johnnie Wright and Kitty Wells’ house and there were two buses sitting there. They’d bought a new bus and were selling their old one. I never forgot what they said: ‘We just came back from the West Coast in this bus and we did it in 56 hours.’ So, Bill bought it. It was a GM Coach and it had a four-cylinder Detroit engine in it. The first trip we went in it was from Nashville to Miami to Tampa, from Tampa to New York City, and then on to Los Angeles with no interstate highways to drive on. When we got to L.A., of course, there were all kinds of interstate highways everywhere.”
Bill Monroe & The Blue Grass Boys played a two-week run at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles at one point. It was then that McCoury first met the legendary Doc Watson. As it turns out, Watson was living in Deep Gap, N.C., just 50 miles from Bakersville in the twenty years earlier when McCoury was visiting his family. What hasn’t been known to bluegrass history until now is that Watson and McCoury played music together in those early days.
“Ralph Rinzler told Bill Monroe, ‘I’m going to bring this guy out there to open the show for the Blue Grass Boys,’” Del recalls. “We had no idea who it was going to be. Bill didn’t know and I didn’t know, and it was Doc Watson. Doc didn’t bring his band with him, and it was him playing solo. Ralph wanted Bill and Doc to sing a bunch of Monroe Brothers songs because Doc knew all of this stuff. That was the first time we’d ever met Doc. Because Doc didn’t have his band with him, he said to me, ‘Would you be interested in going out there and playing backup guitar with me?’ I said, ‘Oh Lord, I don’t know what you do.’ Doc said, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s just them old fiddle tunes.’ I knew all of the old fiddle tunes. Doc was just playing them on the guitar. We went out there on the first night and I knew every tune he played and most of the songs he sang. I ended up playing every night with him. That’s how I met Doc Watson.”
One day, McCoury decided that it was a good idea to leave Bill Monroe’s group. Youthful impetuousness led him to leave the Monroe gig hastily, so he could move to California. In fact, McCoury never actually told Monroe he was leaving his band. He simply disappeared and hit the highway.
“The fiddle player, Billy Baker, talked me into leaving the band. He was a good buddy of mine, and you know how boys are—we were pretty young. Billy wanted to go to California and I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay with Bill. I didn’t give Bill a notice. I left my guitar in the hotel with the old man at the desk, because he and Bill were good buddies. They had known each others for years. I wasn’t afraid to leave Bill’s guitar there because the old man locked it up in the hotel until Bill came in. That guitar that everybody played when they were with Bill was stolen later on. Peter Rowan played that guitar and so did I. Peter said he played it at a party here in town and he left the party and forgot that he brought that guitar. He went back to the party and it was gone. Anyway, I didn’t give Bill a notice that I was leaving. But, Bill wasn’t paying us very good money at that time, because he wasn’t doing good. A lot of guys quit that way. I thought, ‘Heck, Bill owes me all of this money, so I’m not going to give him a notice.’ It was just the way it was back in those days.”
As everyone knows by now, McCoury’s career in the music business has become one of legend. The new album, Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass, is proof that he still has it. The recording even features two cuts written by McCoury—the story song “Joe” was written long ago and “Love Love Love” was penned specifically for the project.
McCoury realizes that the clock never stops ticking and life is fleeting. When he looked into the future nine years ago, he asked his sons to create a band of their own that didn’t depend on him. The Travelin’ McCourys were born and just released their new self-titled album at the same time that Del’s new album dropped a few months ago.
With his 80th birthday on the horizon, McCoury is ready to take life as it comes. With his ever-supportive wife Jean at his side (her family is also from Mitchell County, N.C.), the McCourys are doing what they love, with music and family being front and center.
“Well, I still feel good,” McCoury says. “I guess I’ll still play music until I start feeling like I can’t sing anymore. I feel like I’m in fairly good health where I can still go on the road. Traveling is a lot easier than it used to be. We rent a bus sometimes and other times we fly out and rent vehicles. But, if I find that I’m slipping while singing, I don’t know if I’ll want to do it anymore.”

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