When Rob McCoury started recording his first solo album, The 5 String Flamethrower, he had a whole Rolodex of bluegrass legends to invite to the studio. Both of the Osborne Brothers, Sonny and Bobby, came out of retirement, as did J.D. Crowe and ace banjoists Larry Perkins and Walter Hensley.
“When I think about it,” says McCoury, “it blows me away that I’ve got all my living heroes in my cell phone and I can call them whenever I want.”
And then there are the other McCourys on the album: Rob’s brother, Ron, and their father, Del.
“Ron is my favorite mandolin player and Dad’s definitely my biggest hero and influence — more than just musically. If it wasn’t for him, I definitely wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”
Most of all, The 5 String Flamethrower shows off Rob’s own picking skills, which are formidable. He’s been playing with the Del McCoury Band and the Travelin’ McCourys for more than two decades, sharpening his chops and mastering seemingly every song in the bluegrass canon.
CMT Edge: What made you want to record a solo album?
McCoury: It was something I wanted to do for a long time, and I finally got it all together and made it happen. From start to finish, it was many years in the making. We really do stay busy with the Del McCoury Band and the Travelin’ McCourys, where we go out without Dad. Between those two groups and the other studio projects and session work, you get so busy it’s hard to just say, “I’m going to take these five days off and make a record.”
But it’s something I’ve wanted to do. I started thinking about it about 10 years ago, but then it got shelved. If it hadn’t been for my wife, I probably still wouldn’t have it done. She’s my biggest cheerleader and she can be very persuasive. But we really do stay busy.
Do you think you’ve changed much as an instrumentalist and stylist in that 10 years?
I hope I’ve gotten better! But you definitely do change a lot. I guess it’s part of maturing. It’s like anything — like working on a car. If you do it for years and years, you figure out how to do it better and easier. I guess in the last 15 or 20 years, I think I’ve been trying to figure out how to make the instrument work for me instead of me working for the instrument.
Tone-wise, I think I play a lot better than I used to. I used to play hard. That’s the way we grew up playing, my brothers and myself. Dad, he’s a very forceful player, so we had to play hard if we wanted to play with him. It takes a while to learn to back off of that.
Was there a particular banjo you used on The 5 String Flamethrower?
I used two. I’ve got a 1940 RB-75 Gibson flathead, and that’s a banjo player’s banjo. I used that one on a few cuts. And my father-in-law Dave Kennedy used to build banjos up in West Virginia, and I’ve got one that he built. It has some of those old Gibson parts in it. But they don’t sound anything alike for me. I like both sounds, but I probably used that Kennedy banjo on 75 or 80 percent of the album.
It sounds like having both would give you more options when you’re arranging a song.
I took them both to the studio with me everyday, and as we were rehearsing tunes, I’d sort of A-B them. I’d play both of them and see which one I liked better. A banjo is as much hardware as it is wood, but like a guitar or any instrument, a different wood gives you a different sound. The Kennedy banjo is a maple back and a maple neck, whereas the old Gibson is a mahogany back and a maple neck.
1940 was getting toward the end of Gibson making banjos, largely because of the war effort, I guess. That banjo really should have been mahogany back and neck. But they just took a maple neck, stained it the same color as the mahogany and sent it out the door. So it creates a different sound than the Kennedy.
The album plays like a tribute to your banjo forebears.
It really is. I don’t have anything on there that I wrote. They’re all older tunes. One was my dad’s. I had to pay tribute to Earl [Scruggs], you know. All of his tunes have been recorded so many times, but I picked one that I’ve always liked. I put a couple of Sonny Osborne tunes on there. A couple of J.D. Crowe’s.
I did several tunes by Don Reno. I hate to say he’s overlooked, but people haven’t really dug into the wealth of instrumentals he did. My dad worked with him for a short stint in the ‘60s, and he said Don was one of the most musical people he’s ever been around.
There definitely seems to be a multigenerational quality to the album with a lot of younger players backing older musicians.
Originally I thought I’d use some of the guys in the Travelin’ McCourys on just a few cuts, but then I’d piece together a new band with some other guys I’d like to play with. But after we got the first bunch of tracks done, I thought it sounded so good that I didn’t need a whole other band. I’ll just add to this one.
I was really fortunate to have some of my heroes come in and help me out, too. I really wanted Bobby [Osborne] to play on this one particular instrumental that he and his brother recorded called “Siempre.” It has a Latin beat and I always loved what Bobby played on it. He did play mandolin on it and he even sang on “We Could.” How could you ask for anything more than that?