Del McCoury: Alive and Picking
One of the Founding Fathers of Bluegrass is still going strong at 83
When he walks on stage with his band, Del McCoury lights up the hearts of his fans with his smiling presence.
At 83, he’s still able to fill the air with the high lonesome sound that moved bluegrass from the backwoods to the international stage.
“I sometimes I wonder how I do it,” McCoury said, speaking from his home outside of Nashville. “I never warm up. I just tune up the guitar and go on stage. I might crack a note or two at the beginning of a set, but it gets better as the night goes on. Guess the good Lord gave me a voice I can use and he’s still with me and it still works.”
With his band behind him – sons Ronnie McCoury on mandolin and guitar and Rob McCoury on banjo, alongside fiddler Jason Carter and upright bass player Alan Bartram – every performance has the feel of a spontaneous jam. McCoury never uses a set list and will play any tune the crowd requests. “If we have a 90-minute show, I’ll introduce each member of the band, starting with my oldest son Ronnie. He’ll play a song. Then, as each member is introduced, they’ll play a song. Then we do requests from the audience. We do try to work in songs from our newest record, but without a set list. I never know what’s coming next. It keeps everybody on their toes. If you have the same set list every night, the band gets bored. So I keep it exciting for them.”
McCoury’s been a bluegrass star since he was hired to play banjo and sing in Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1963. He started his own band with his sons in the early 80s. They’ve been on the road ever since, only slowing down a bit during the recent pandemic lockdown. “I played the Grand Ole Opry in March of 2020 and then everything stopped. We played a few outdoor dates last year, but things have been slow.”
AUDIO: Bill Monroe with Del McCoury “In The Pines”
During the shutdown, McCoury had time to listen to the demos that had been accumulating on his desk. He selected his favorite tunes for his new album, Almost Proud, released in February. “People send me demos in the mail or hand ‘em to me after a performance. I throw them in a box after I get home. When the shutdown came, I worked up 25 or 26 songs out of the pile. Some were brand new, some had been recorded by other bands. I never know what I’m looking for until I hear it. I also got inspired to write a few of my own. I wrote my first song in 1966, but I don’t classify myself as a songwriter. I mostly write when I decide it’s time to do a record.”
The songs on Almost Proud concentrate on the lives of working-class folks. McCoury said he sings a song when he can identify with lyrics. “I’m from the working class. I grew up on a farm and worked hard all my life, so I feel for the people who have to work hard. In the middle of making Almost Proud, Ronnie said, ‘You’re doing a lot of drinking songs on this one.’ That’s just the way it worked out. I don’t have a theme in mind when I make a record. I like a variety of tempos, subject matter, keys and styles. We had piano on a couple of songs this time, and I once made an album with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but we’re a bluegrass group.”
Almost Proud does show off the band’s fondness for stretching the boundaries of bluegrass. “Honky Tonk Nights,” a recent hit for Mike O’Reilly, features a guest vocal from country star Vince Gill, and has a hint of honky tonk in its rhythm, although Rob McCoury’s banjo solo is pure bluegrass. Songwriter Mason Via is also stretching the boundaries of bluegrass. He’s a member of The Old Crow Medicine Show and calls his approach Rhythm and Bluegrass. His “Brown Paper Bag” is an old time ‘drinkin’ away my troubles’ number. McCoury plays it as a waltz, and brings a tearful sincerity to his vocal. Kritofferson’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” is played as a classic bluegrass ballad, with Ronnie and Del singing lead harmony vocals before breaks by Carter’s fiddle, Ronnie McCoury’s mandolin and Rob McCoury’s banjo. “Running Wild,” a new tune by Del, is a traditional bluegrass rave up, with work by Rob McCoury on banjo, Carter on a fiddle solo long on dark tones and Ronnie’s blazing mandolin coda.
“We made this album last winter,” McCoury said. “We broke in a new studio called the Tractor Shed. It’s engineer Mark Howard’s studio, actually built in an old tractor shed. Ronnie and I produced it, but the band had input too. I come up with the songs, Ronnie arranges the instrumental parts in the studio and then we do it live, playing together.
“I was actually in the studio again just recently. I recorded five songs left over from the 26 I picked for Almost Proud. Since it was released, songs have been coming to me. It won’t be long until I have another record ready. My sons are also in the studio with their own band making albums, so we’re getting pretty busy these days. They won a Best Bluegrass Album Grammy for their first record, so I have to work pretty hard to get ahead of them.”
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