Del McCoury Reflects on His Bluegrass Journey

There’s no missing that plaintive, edged tenor. It is unadulterated mountain soul pinched into a lean, cutting, one-of-a-kind, high lonesome attack. And in person, the voice is accompanied by an immaculately sculpted white pompadour that would stand out in any crowd.

The man in possession of these traits, Del McCoury, is by far one of the most visible and venerable faces in bluegrass music today. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame during the IBMA Awards last year and served as co-host of the 2012 awards show just Thursday night (Sept. 27) at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

It’s pretty striking to consider that McCoury hadn’t made enough of an impact on the genre by the mid-‘70s — the tail end of the era covered in Neil Rosenberg’s lengthy, definitive history of the genre — to even merit an entry in the index. Not only has McCoury had a singular career, he’s thrown a fresh light on the genre’s historical narrative.

One place McCoury does pop up in Rosenberg’s tome is in an account of Bill Monroe simultaneously hiring two banjo players for the Blue Grass Boys. McCoury was one, and the other was Bill Keith. (Monroe wound up moving McCoury to the singer-guitarist slot.) This happened in 1963, more than a decade and a-half after the standard-setting Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys lineup that had Earl Scruggs for its banjo-rolling engine.

So McCoury wasn’t a first-generation guy, but he was close enough on their heels to watch them revolutionize string band music when he was a boy. One can only imagine how inspiring that must have been, but McCoury laughs off the notion that he would’ve gotten starry-eyed about his own musical future.

“Oh, I really wasn’t dreaming much,” he chuckles. “My brother taught me to play guitar, my older brother, when I was about 9, because he played music. That was just a part of everybody’s thing, you know, just to play the guitar and sing. And then, too, we grew up in the Missionary Baptist Church and we sang. I’ve known [musical] parts since I was a kid. Nobody showed ‘em to me. I just knew ‘em for some reason, part singing. In 1950, I think it was, my brother bought a Flatt & Scruggs record. I wasn’t real enthused about playing, I don’t think, until then. So I would’ve been 11.”

He continues with gusto, “So when I heard Earl Scruggs, I thought, ‘Boy, now, that’s what I want to do. I want to learn to play like that’ — which it wasn’t as easy as I thought it might be. But I never really dreamed [big]. Now, I did eventually want to play in a band. That was my aim, to go and play in a band and get on the radio, which I did. You know, I was never a guy to advance myself like I should have. I just never thought about making money or becoming popular. All I wanted to do was play, man. I mean, I’d play for 24 hours and then eat something and play for 24 more.”

After at least half a dozen sideman gigs — the one with Monroe falling right in the middle of them — McCoury set up his own outfit, Del McCoury & the Dixie Pals. Their reissued albums and a boxed set spanning McCoury’s 50-year career offer proof he already had that voice way back when.

Truthfully, for much of the time that he led the Dixie Pals, he was a part-timer who did shows on weekends and also worked in logging.

“We weren’t serious about it then,” he explains. “I was just playing club work in Baltimore and around southern Pa. there.”

The pickers in his band were in the same boat. He says, “Some of them would have to, by necessity, quit on account of their job. … I wasn’t playing enough for them to make a living.”

Things solidified when McCoury’s sons Ronnie and Rob joined up in the mid-80s, ushering in the dynastic era of the Del McCoury Band. Together, they made notable albums for Rounder, then for Ricky Skaggs’ Ceili label and, after that, for their own McCoury Music.

In a way that few other significant bluegrass musicians besides Scruggs have done, McCoury has made the most out of collaborating with his sons — banjo-playing Rob and mandolin-playing Ronnie — who bring the sensibilities of a different generation into the mix.

McCoury recalls, “Ronnie and Rob, they’d say, ‘Dad, you know there’s this song so-and-so.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, play it for me.’ They’d have a tape of it or a record. And I’d say, ‘We could do that if we can get it in the right key or the right tempo to suit me.’ It happened a lot. I have been influenced by those boys.”

He offers as an example the time Ronnie suggested he cover the late ‘80s guitar rock anthem “Love Is a Long Road.”

“It was that guy with the long blond hair that lives in Florida, the rocker, you know,” McCoury says. “Oh, what is his name? Anyway, [Ronnie] played it for me, and I said, ‘You know what? We would do better with that doing it double time.’”

McCoury laughs once it registers that this was, in fact, a Tom Petty cover. Marty Stuart once had the opportunity to play the bluegrass version of it for Petty himself. Says McCoury, “All Tom said was, ‘Mmm. Cool.’ That’s all he said. Didn’t say if it was good or bad.”

There’s nothing at all diluted about the bluegrass McCoury has delivered in the past quarter-century — as if there’s any other musical setting that would suit his potent tenor quite so well. Along the way, the Del McCoury Band has raked in IBMA entertainer of the year awards, a Grammy and other wall-filling honors.

But it’s made a world of difference to the music’s ability to carry to far-flung audiences that McCoury has been open to things like rock and Americana covers, not to mention teaming up with Steve Earle for The Mountain, getting onstage with bands like Phish, playing Bonnaroo, launching the jamgrass-friendly DelFest and making an album with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

When you get right down to it, McCoury is a living, breathing reminder of the dynamism of the bluegrass tradition.

“You see, I found out later in life that Bill Monroe used to go to New Orleans and listen to those jazz players on them horns,” he says. “So he was influenced by jazz, and I didn’t know that. Then I got to thinking, ‘Now wait a minute. Earl Scruggs played a lot of those … Dixieland tunes. Don Reno, the same thing.’

“Those boys growing up, that’s what they heard, because there was no bluegrass when they were growing up.”