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February 17, 2014IM -
Del McCoury of Local 257 (Nashville, TN) lives in Hendersonville, Tennessee, just north of Nashville. He answered the phone with a voice as sunny as the weather outside his southern home, and as soon as he could, the humble singer changed the subject from his 50-plus years in the music business to what was really on his mind, and has been stuck there ever since he was a 13-year-old farm boy in York County, Pennsylvania—his hero, Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass.
The Del McCoury Band is a tight-knit family operation. Del’s two sons, Rob on banjo and Ronnie on mandolin, are joined by fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram, all members of Local 257 (Nashville, TN).
“We all called him Chief,” he says with a chuckle. In 1963, 23-year-old Del McCoury went to work for Monroe as his lead singer and rhythm guitar player. Originally a banjo player, McCoury’s new position in the band required some hard work to become comfortable. “Learning the material was the hardest part for me. I sang choruses because I was a tenor singer, but I hadn’t sung a lot of tunes all the way through,” says McCoury, who, like Monroe, has a formidable upper range. “When you’re young, you can do that. I’ve rewritten a few of his songs on stage because I can’t remember the words!”
Monroe also helped McCoury get into the union, which was required to play the Grand Ole Opry. McCoury has maintained his membership, and his band are all Local 257 members as well. “I believe in the union because they work for you,” he says. “It’s somebody on your side as a musician to help you if anything happens.”
McCoury’s tenure with Monroe only lasted a year. Monroe had a lot of difficulty keeping consistent personnel, but nonetheless, they remained great friends until Monroe’s death in 1996. “When he was getting pretty old, we would play the Station Inn, and he’d just walk right in, and I’d see that white hat,” says McCoury. “He’d come in the front door, and he would step right on stage between the microphones! He’d take over, you know! I knew he liked me, I got that feeling.”
It was nearly 50 years ago that McCoury played in Monroe’s band, but the evidence of that experience is still obvious in his music today. After leaving the Bluegrass Boys, McCoury formed his own band at the same time that many of his peers, like Clarence White, Peter Rowan, and later Local 257 member Béla Fleck, were beginning to experiment and stretch the boundaries of bluegrass. McCoury stuck with the course charted by the early originators of the style.
“I always figured the core sound of a bluegrass band was what I heard with [Lester] Flatt and [Earl] Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and Chubby Wise,” he says. “That was a five-piece band, and that made a big impression on me. There were a lot of new grass bands coming out in the ’60s and early ’70s, and I loved to listen to them, but I couldn’t picture myself doing any of that.”
But make no mistake, The Del McCoury Band is by no means a country music museum piece. This crack team of Local 257 instrumentalists includes McCoury’s two sons, Ronnie and Rob on mandolin and banjo, respectively. Jason Carter, one of the best bluegrass fiddlers around, joined in 1992, and bassist Alan Bartram, the newest addition to the group, plays on the edge of the beat, just where Del and boys like it. The magic of this group lies in their ability to capture the adventurous bluegrass spirit by injecting new material into the traditional sound.
“I learned early on that you do have to do new songs to keep everything fresh,” says McCoury. “We had Jerry Douglas [of Local 257] producing us for a while when I first moved down here, so he’d come up with songs that were kind of different. So would my boys; they listen to stuff that I’d never heard of.” No genre is off limits—the Del McCoury Band has drawn from artists like Local 689 (Eugene, OR) member Robert Cray and Tom Petty of Local 47 (Los Angeles). But whether they’re singing rock, soul, or blues, Del and the boys are bluegrass to the core. In fact, if you didn’t know the origins of their cover material, the casual listener could easily think they are long-lost traditional bluegrass tunes.
McCoury is equally adventurous with his collaborations. The band recently released a record with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans, and the groups have scheduled a number of live dates together. You probably wouldn’t consider the compatibility between the chaotic group improv of early jazz and the orderly hierarchy of a bluegrass group, but after working out the inherent balance issues of acoustic stringed instruments and horns, the two styles fall together wonderfully. McCoury suspects that this is more than coincidence.
“You know, I found out something—it’s funny the things you find out—Peter Rowan, who was with Bill longer than I was, told me that Bill used to go to New Orleans for a week at a time, sometimes two weeks, and listen to music,” says McCoury. “From there, I put two and two together. Some of the things they play on those horns, and I can hear these fiddle licks, you know?” McCoury also hears things in Monroe’s mandolin that comes straight from the horns of early jazz.
Another interesting parallel involves one of rock ‘n’ rolls most influential guitarists, Chuck Berry of Local 2-197 (St. Louis, MO). “Chuck used to come and sit on those old steps of the Opry and listen to the music, and he would hear Bill Monroe playing those licks on the mandolin, and go home and put them on that guitar,” McCoury says. It’s no coincidence that both musicians share a very similar style of forceful downstrokes and double stops; the only difference lies in the contexts in which they were played.
Approaching 73, McCoury is considered by many to be a living legend. He reluctantly accepts this title, preferring instead to sing the praises of his heroes and mentors of the past. Despite his age, he’s in great shape and isn’t slowing down one bit. Still, he knows there will be a day when his voice will begin to falter, and life on the road will be too difficult. His latest project, a tribute to Bill Monroe, is one of a long list of things to get done before that time comes.
“Bill Monroe would be 100 this year,” says McCoury. “Since I worked for him, I thought I’d record some of his obscure songs, rather than the ones that everybody has done. I did that; I recorded 13 of them. I wanted to record them in the same keys that Bill did them in, and I can still do that. There’s gonna be a time pretty soon that I can’t.”
In between the band’s jobs, Ronnie, Rob, Carter, and Bartram pick up a guitar player and go out on their own as The Travelin’ McCourys. “We got to thinking back when I was 70, and I thought it would be a good idea to get the boys used to doing something on their own,” he says. “There might be a time soon when I have to quit.”
But don’t worry, that time hasn’t come yet, and his devoted fans pray that it doesn’t for many more years to come. McCoury is in top form physically and mentally. His high tenor range has developed into a softer, aged tone that carries with it the story of a lifetime of devotion to his music, and his signature rhythm guitar style is as gutsy as ever. “I feel good yet, and I can get out there and just hit it with those young guys, you know?” That’s no easy feat considering the formidable company he keeps, with whom McCoury is passing along the spirit of bluegrass music for the next generation.