Del McCoury: Tradition and Change
We’ve seen the Del McCoury Band at two midsized bluegrass festivals this summer. At age 77 — and having been inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in Owensboro, Kentucky, in 2011 — you’d think that McCoury has earned himself a rest, but he continues to tour hard with his band. Everywhere he goes, he spreads the warmth of his personality and music. And his music is deeply embedded in the souls of the bluegrass community, as well as a much wider community of musicians and fans for whom he’s an icon of both tradition and change.
Born in York, Pennsylvania, in 1939 (his parents had moved there from North Carolina, probably for work with Caterpiller Tractor whose headquarters were there), Del picked up a love of playing guitar and singing early on. When he was home, he made his living as a logger, but spent time in California and on the road for about a year as a Blue Grass Boy with Bill Monroe.
He eventually returned to York and began working locally and then more widely with his brother Jerry in a band called the Dixie Pals, while developing his own style.
Traveling with Jerry on bass, the Dixie Pals morphed into the Del McCoury Band, as Del’s sons — Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo — joined the band.
It should be noted that McCoury had played a great deal in the large, blue collar bluegrass scene that, at that time, thrived in the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area. There, he knew and spent time with both Olla Belle Reed and Hazel Dickens. His later recording of Tompall Glazer and Harlan Howard’s “Streets of Baltimore” attests to this. But here’s a video shot at the 1981 Corinth, NY Bluegrass Festival featuring a fourteen year old Ronnie in his first festival with Del’s brother Jerry on Bass.
During the 1990s, the popularity and reach of the Del McCoury Band dominated bluegrass awards and then began to move into a wider sphere. McCoury was named IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year from 1990 – 1992. His son Ronnie was awarded the Mandolin Player of the year seven times during the 1990s. The entire band was named Entertainer of the Year five times during that decade and an additional four times at the beginning of the aughts.
Later instrumental awards have gone to Jason Carter and Rob McCoury. Mike Bub, no longer a member of the band, but an extremely busy session and utility bass player, was named Bass Player of the Year five times during the period he was with McCoury’s group. The band won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 2006, the second of two nominations. Thus, the Del McCoury Band may be the most highly recognized and awarded bluegrass band in history.
Amid all the accolades, though, perhaps the best recognition the group has received has been from musicians and fans across the musical spectrum, without McCoury having had to compromise his sound or loyalty to the music. In addition to its own wealath of bluegrass music, the band teamed up with rock, country, and folk stalwart Steve Earle for a much-appreciated album, The Mountain. Here’s a recording of Earle singing his own song “Carrie Brown” with the McCoury band, from a Live at Farm Aid concert in 1998.
In the past decade or so, the Del McCoury Band has become influential and gained great respect within the jam band community, as well. In a birthday tribute to Del on the occasion of his 77th birthday, Andy Kahn wrote in Jam Base, “His influence on jam-forward bands is nearly immeasurable, and today in honor of his birthday, here’s a look back at a sit-in he was part of more than 15 years ago.” Here’s the jam on Jimmy Martin’s “Hold Watcha Got” with Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, the Del McCoury Band, Phish, and others:
Currently, Del is on a limited tour with David Grisman in a series called Del & Dawg Tour.
McCoury and Grisman met at the first show McCoury ever played on banjo with Bill Monroe. Their first children were born within days of each other. While McCoury has hewn pretty closely to traditional bluegrass, Grisman has pursued his own vision through his Dawg music.
The tour they’re on together features conversation and music that has grown out of a more-than-50-year friendship between two giants of bluegrass and acoustic music. Here they are jamming to a “Country Boy Rock & Roll.”
Beyond his collaborations with folks like Steve Earle and David Grisman — and others — McCoury’s musical world has expanded and developed. A look at the DelFest lineup through the years will suggest the range of his openness to new music and the joy he takes in it. His work with the steel/electric band the Lee Boys as well as with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has expanded his exploratory artistry.
Nonetheless, at the Podunk Bluegrass Festival last weekend, his music didn’t stray from straight-ahead, driving bluegrass, even when he sang from his new album, which puts music to lyrics written by Woody Guthrie.
So, let’s finish this column with the Del McCoury Band singing Ola Belle Reed’s “High on a Mountain” at Podunk last weekend.