For Del McCoury, Baltimore was more than just a place to earn a quick buck playing tunes for crowds of rowdy drunks. Instead, in the late 1950s and ‘60s, it was something like a laboratory where a musician not only honed his chops but also absorbed every strain of music emanating from clubs and radio speakers — rockabilly, folk, jazz, country, the whole spectrum.
That stylistic diversity has informed McCoury’s music well after he left Charm City, especially his latest album, Streets of Baltimore. These new recordings — including a cover of the Tompall Glaser/Harlan Howard classic that serves as the title track — careen wildly from zigzagging bluegrass jams to weepy country ballads, from gospel testifying to rock ‘n’ roll carousing. At 74, he’s lost none of his famous agility on the frets and none of the emotion in his tensile voice.
This fall, McCoury will play a few dates with his band — which includes sons Ronnie and Rob — and a handful of West Coast dates with Masters of Bluegrass (or MOB, as he calls it). Before he hits the road, the bluegrass legend spoke with CMT Edge from his home in Nashville and held forth on Baltimore’s bluegrass history, Woody Guthrie’s extensive note keeping and what to do when a fight breaks out midsong.
CMT Edge: Baltimore doesn’t have much of a reputation these days as a bluegrass town. What was it like when you were there?
McCoury: It was a hot place for bluegrass in the ‘50s and ‘60s. After the war was over, it seemed a lot of folks migrated there for work. There was Martin’s airplane factory and shipbuilding and the steel mill. Boy, war made that town hop. A lot of those people were musicians. I played downtown. I remember playing a place called the Green Hill Bar. It was the last exit before you went through the tunnel. You got off on the last exit on 95. But most of the places I played were downtown, northeast going up either Route 1 or Route 40. Those were the two main roads through town. There was a place called the Carlton Motel on Route 40 that we played a lot.
I remember playing this one bar when a fight broke out one night. Any time there was a fight, the owner would yell to us, “Keep playing! Keep playing!” If you stopped played music, everyone would get into the fight. We were playing one night, and I heard something go POP! Man, that sounded like a pistol. This place had a big, long oval bar, and the stage was at one end of it. I heard this pop, but we kept playing.
I looked out and saw this one guy running around that big oval bar. He’d duck down, and I’d see another guy on the other side of the bar pop his head up. They both had guns. One guy would shoot, and the other would duck. We just kept playing and didn’t think much about it. When I think about that now, I wonder why we did all that stuff. When you’re young, you’re dumb.
What led you to cover “Streets of Baltimore” for this album?
It was kind of an afterthought to do that song, and people thought I based this record on Baltimore. But actually I didn’t. I had these songs that I had picked to do and thought I needed to do something about Baltimore. I thought about writing something, but then I remembered that song “Streets of Baltimore.” I knew the streets of Baltimore pretty well back then. I think I’d get lost in that town now.
What did you learn playing those rowdy clubs in Baltimore?
In a club, you can try things that you might not do on a main stage. You’ll try different things with your voice or your instrument. That’s the way you learn. But it’s good for you. You can rehearse things and rehearse things, but until you get up in front of an audience, you don’t know if it’s going to work or not. That’s just the way music is, you know.
Musically, there’s a lot happening on this new album. Does that range come from playing in a place like Baltimore, where so many different styles of music were developing all at once?
Yeah. I tell you what, when we were playing those places, a lot of times we would do songs that were popular on the radio because people would request them. Maybe you didn’t know them, but you’d sing a chorus and a verse or two. There’s no telling what people would request. That happened a lot. I ended up recording some of those songs over the years. Now, when I’m out with my band, we never have a set list. We just go out there, play a few songs and then we take requests. I’m lucky when they request my songs. When they start requesting other people’s songs, I’m in trouble.
Is that why you recorded “Only You” for this album? Was that one you got requests for?
I heard that song on the radio when I was pretty young. The Platters did it. I graduated in ’56, so that was on the radio while I was in school. They were playing Elvis, too. That’s all the kids in my school wanted to hear. I happened to think of that song and had my grandson, who’s good with computers, download it for me. But they did it slow, and I thought it would be a good tune to play up-tempo with the guys. They did it great.
I mainly produced this record by myself because the band was pretty busy. We didn’t rehearse the songs until we got in the studio this time. Usually, we spend some time getting them ready before we go into the studio. But those guys were so busy, I thought I’d just work on these things myself. I figured out the keys to sing in and the tempos, and then they would figure out the breaks and arrangements. I’m sure the guys had never heard some of these songs before.
You recorded some Woody Guthrie tunes recently, as well. Can you tell me about that project?
Woody had so many things he had written, and he may have had a melody for them, and either they were lost or he never put them out. They just found a whole bunch of stuff recently, and Nora Guthrie, his daughter, wondered if I’d write some melodies to these lyrics he’d written. Some of them were in his own handwriting, and some were typed out. But they had been typed a long time ago and were very faint on the paper. It took a magnifying glass to read some of them.
He was good about keeping notes, too, and he’d write a paragraph below the song on a piece of paper — where he was and what he was thinking when he wrote it. This one time, he said he had just gotten to New York and had written “This Land Is Your Land.” That same day he sat down on a curbstone and wrote a song about women’s hats. In the city, they were all high fashion. Some looked like ice cream cones, some looked like they had mousetraps above their ears. Some looked like a fishing net pulled down over their faces. … He had a way with words. He really did.