Del McCoury – Both sides now
At his show at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater late in April, Charlie Daniels was showing off his more tradition-minding side by recruiting Earl Scruggs, Mac Wiseman and Del McCoury, three key Bluegrass Boys from different eras, to lead the musicians backing him on the Bill Monroe milestone classics “Uncle Pen” and “Molly And Tenbrooks”. It was one of those “I never thought I’d see this” moments that just happen in Nashville sometimes.
But the most interesting number came a few minutes later, when Charlie briefly yielded the stage to the Del McCoury Band, and Del told the audience — assembled in the first place to hear bluegrass gospel — they’d be taking requests. Somebody asked for a particular favorite instantly, and it wasn’t a gospel quartet, or something from the classic bluegrass playbook.
“How about that motorcycle song,” they shouted, and everybody knew which one that meant. Del and company ripped into Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, their hit version of the Anglo rocker’s tale of a badass biker’s last girl, last bike, and last gasp.
That’s what it’s like for the Del McCoury Band now, pretty regularly; they find an audience waiting with a taste for their unconventional material at the Country Hall of Fame, at the Grand Ole Opry, on the bluegrass festival circuit, in fogie-courting Branson — even as they take their dynamically played yet traditional sounds, their songs of family, God and clearly adult complications, to fans of Steve Earle or of Phish, to Bonnaroo and the Fillmore, to the Jammys and Merlefest.
“That hits me the most when I’m doing a show,” Del submits, talking in the comfortable upstairs workroom of his and wife Jean’s spacious house in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
“I’m doing songs that are from both ends of the thing, you know, and it goes through my mind: ‘What will they think of this?’ But at the same time, I’ve had young people ask me for songs that I wouldn’t even dream they would, songs that I recorded 30 years ago that I’d think somebody my age would request. When we recorded the song ‘Let An Old Racehorse Run’, I figured that would appeal to guys my age, but these young girls request that song. It’s the craziest thing!”
The quietly acknowledged stretching and crossing of temperamental and generational borders is at the heart of the new Del McCoury Band album The Company We Keep (due July 12 on McCoury Music, distributed by Sugar Hill). As that title suggests, its fourteen songs are mainly about relationships — and they come up in an order that’s bound to pull listeners, young and old, into something very like a story of passage from punkhood to maturity, a sort of ride.
“They really do,” Del concurs. “That kind of happened in the sequencing. I just had these songs, you know, that I took a liking to, and that we recorded and all. But then when you get it all done, you sequence the thing. I had more to do with that this time. Ronnie [his co-producer son, the band’s ace mandolin player and co-vocalist] helps me with that sequencing — but I moved a few around this time after he did it. And, yes, that’s probably what I was thinking!”
The first half of the album, virtually its first “side,” sticks pretty firmly to numbers with attitude, and portrayals of guys with a really generous supply of it. It’s a song cycle that begins with the bluesy “Nothin’ Special” from songwriter Mark Walton, in which the singer informs an intended date he wants “nothin’ special; I’ll take what you’ve got and be satisfied” — a sentiment blunt enough that it would more likely be heard previously in rockabilly than bluegrass. There’s Liz Meyer’s “Untamed”, which has Del singing “I don’t let love get near me” and “my dark and wild heart.” And there’s the standout “Never Grow Up Boy”, co-written by Del himself and Harley Allen, in which Del informs us he’s a “guitar-pickin’, bluegrass-singin’, never grow-up boy” who plays in “dive bars” and “ain’t never gonna act my age.”
Well, at least until the second half of the record. Then the tone shifts — hard. The second “side” is built on more circumspect songs that talk about the smooth passing of torches between generations, the blank spaces between adult men and women who’ve drifted away from each other (including one, “Blown Away And Gone”, co-written by Mark Simos and No Depression contributing editor Jon Weisberger), and an affecting new piece of gospel testimony written by James Salley and Suzanne Mumpower, “I Never Knew Life”.
A lot of fans, by this point, are no doubt wondering exactly how much of a hellion biker Del McCoury really was back in high school, when today, at age 66 and a famous family man, he’s still (to use his word) “intrigued” by numbers like the attitudinous ones here. Is that kid in “Never Grow Up Boy” and the others basically him?
“Well, I never really got into big trouble; I always had a lot of farm work to do,” he begins, before revealing: “But I did ride motorcycles, and yeah, I would say it would be me. And I do kind of like that type of song!
“I wrote that one with Harley Allen. He said to me, ‘I’d prefer we write something about you.’ And I said ‘Oh, man; I don’t know if I want to do that!’ He wrote most of it, but once I got into my mind the idea that he had, then I could help him. I knew Harley’s dad, the great bluegrass singer Red Allen, real well, and he’s a great guy. He knows the life of a musician; he knew a lot of the kinds of things I went through. I really liked the way the song came off.”
That sort of experience, Del notes, has ended his long-held doubts as to whether co-writes could be personal, or ever result in songs that were not simply jobs of work. Besides two collaborations with Allen, the new CD features Del’s co-write with Don Schlitz, “If Here Is Where You Are” (“here is where you’re supposed to be”) — which could be a new theme song for the band, welcoming in an audience from backgrounds predictable and unpredictable alike. He’s also collaborated recently with both Shawn Camp and Bob DiPiero, but the results will wait till another day to be recorded.
Ironically enough, the hooky, catchy song that may seem most specifically about the experiences of the two-generation Del McCoury Band, “Fathers And Sons” by veteran songwriter Gary Nicholson, was one Del had picked out of the always-growing pile of demos he accepts on the road, collects for months on end and then listens to in great chunks, locked up in the very room where this conversation was taking place. It was no new, targeted song; Waylon Jennings recorded a version in the late ’80s.