“When I got to high school, all the other kids were listenin’ to Elvis because that’s the way it was all over the world,” declares Del McCoury with a contented laugh.
“But it didn’t faze me because I already had been turned onto Earl Scruggs.”
With another chuckle, the bluegrass and musical icon then explained how he discovered the music that he would go on to help define over his 50 years as a working musician with over 20 albums, 31 International Bluegrass Music Association awards and a Grammy.
“My older brother taught me to play guitar when I was nine years old. He bought a record of Flatt & Scruggs in 1950 – I would have been eleven then – and that is what really turned me onto bluegrass. So I learned to play banjo and I did that for ten years before I went back to playing guitar and singing.”
McCoury got his start in the rough and tumble Baltimore bluegrass scene of the 1950s and 60s, a scene that seems to have become lost in time but that McCoury points out was utterly pivotal to the development of bluegrass.
“There was Nashville, and then there was Baltimore,” the 72 year-old living legend remembers. “In Baltimore the bands were less professional, but there were some great musicians in that town. The first bluegrass band to play Carnegie Hall in 1959 was from Baltimore, Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys, and I knew everyone of those guys. There were so many places to go hear this kind of music there, and when I got big enough I wanted to go down there and play it, and that’s just what I did.”
Commuting from his home in York County, PA, McCoury established himself as a hot banjo player on the Baltimore scene. It was there that he would meet the man who would get McCoury to put down the banjo and pick up his guitar and begin singing again.
That man, Bill Monroe, is rightly considered the father of bluegrass. He created a sound and style that was based on the country and string music of his youth, and that would take its name from his band, The Blue Grass Boys. Not only did he invent the very sound of the music, Monroe was the mentor for several generations of musicians.
One of those musicians was McCoury, who first hooked up with Monroe in Baltimore in 1963 when Monroe was passing through and needed a banjo player for a show he had booked in New York City. McCoury played the show wbut was unsure about joining Monroe’s band at the time and passed on the invitation to join full time.
A short while later McCoury reconsidered his decision.
“Months later I decided to maybe I’ll go down to Nashville and see if he still needed a banjo player. Stupid idea,” McCoury reminisced with a laugh.
“When I got there, he needed a guitar player and a singer and that is what he wanted me to do.”
It was not the switch to guitar that McCoury found the most intimidating.
“It was a big learning thing for me because as the singer I had to learn all his songs,” reminisced McCoury.
“Bill would play anything in his shows at the time. It was difficult because I had to learn all his stuff. If I had just went in as the banjo player it would have been easier…then I would just have to remember a couple of changes in the choruses.”
Though McCoury’s time with Monroe was short, it was a fruitful experience. “I liked working for him. He never did say a whole lot about anything; he was just that kind of guy. You had to learn from his example. There are probably so many things I don’t even realize I learned from him,” he continued.
Most importantly McCoury’s time with Monroe helped introduce the world to a voice — a high, lonesome tenor that sounds as if it is sung from the top of the Blue-Ridge Mountains — that might just be the most perfect bluegrass voice ever. It is a voice about which country superstar Vince Gill says, “I’d rather hear Del McCoury sing ‘Are You Teasing Me’ than just about anything.”
After leaving Monroe, McCoury played with a variety bands and began to establish himself as one of the leading figures in the bluegrass world. It evolved into a family affair as McCoury teamed with his brother Jerry on bass as The Dixie Pals in the 1970s and 80s. Eventually McCoury’s two sons Ronnie and Robbie joined on mandolin and banjo, respectively, and they began playing as the Del McCoury Band. With this ensemble, he began to find his greatest success.
Unlike his one-time boss and mentor Monroe, who McCoury said, “was keeping the hard core bluegrass alive,” McCoury seems to flourish in his ability to cross genres and appeal to a wider audience. A new generation of bands discovered his large catalog of songs and began incorporating them into their sets, exposing him to a whole new audience. His son Ronnie also began to introduce him to new music that was quickly incorporated into the band’s set. McCoury’s willingness to embrace new music even led him to share the stage with jam-titans Phish and String Cheese Incident, among others.
This openness was not limited to a live setting. McCoury found time to record an album with country-rock outlaw Steve Earle. The Mountain has been hailed as one of Earle’s finest and showcases McCoury’s chameleon-like ability to bring his high-lonesome voice and back porch sensibilities to whatever kind of music he chooses. His reinvention of British folk-master Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightening,” the International Bluegrass Music Association’s 2002 song of the year, is further proof.
This makes his last project, despite its seemingly diverse ingredients, an unsurprising masterful collaboration. Teaming with New Orleans’ legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band (PHJB), these two pillars of American music came together to craft an album (American Legacies, due out April 12) that pulls from the rich histories of both distinctly American styles of music, the sweet backwoods swoon of McCoury, and the New Orleans spiced Dixieland swing of the PHJB.
The two first crossed paths when McCoury played on PHJB’s 2010 album, Preservation. Until then, his experience with jazz was admittedly limited. The seeds of what would become American Legacies were slow, gradual growers. Liking what they had discovered during their short collaboration for Preservation, the two bands decided to spend some time together in New Orleans and see what happened. That blossomed into dates together and eventually grew into the idea of a joint album.
As they began to develop material for the album, they searched for common ground that the two bands shared. It is a time McCoury fondly recalls.
“Let me tell you a story,” the singer simply began. “I never really listened to that much jazz in my life, but Bill Monroe did, you know.
“When we were in town trying to play, we had recorded a few things. My son Ronnie was talking with the PHJB guys, and he told them about when Bill Monroe had a bad accident back in like 1955 and was laid up in the hospital for a long time. Everything was broke up. His back was broke. His nose was [broken]. I don’t know all that was wrong with him, but anyway they happened to play on the radio while he was in the hospital this jazz tune called ‘Milenberg Joys.’ Later he recorded it from memory as a mandolin piece.
“So Ron said, ‘You guys know that song?’ They just cut right off into it. And so we put it on this record.”
The result is a stunning combination of American musical history, finding the common ground between jazz and bluegrass, an area that American Legacies proves is not as wide one would think. The genius of the album is the way in which it finds those subtle similarities between the two diverse musical styles and intertwines them in such a way that they seem like long-lost soul mates finally reunited. It this aspect of the collaboration that McCoury takes the most pride in, stating “It is all integrated together. It is not like we get up and do a song and then they do a song. It is all together. It is great you know.”
American Legacies is just another step across a musical universe that finds McCoury leaving his indelible mark on all he comes into contact with, further cementing his status as a true American music legend.
With the statement “all music is related, you know,” McCoury summed up his unique ability to cross genres and find common ground with seemingly everyone, shedding some light on what he feels is the secret to making music.
After a thoughtful pause he finishes, “It is all kin somehow.”
To stream American Legacies, click here. A free download of “The Band’s in Town” is located below.
For more on Del McCoury, log on to www.DelMcCouryBand.com