Not only is he one of the most revered figures in bluegrass, Del McCoury is considered the genre’s most progressive old pro; the Del McCoury Band is known for its innovative song choices and arrangements, and for pushing the proverbial envelope, tradition–wise.
Still, for that Appalachian “high lonesome” sound, he is the vocalist to beat. McCoury, a banjo player who made his Big Time debut as a member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in 1964, has few, if any, equals.
The Del McCoury Band performs Saturday, April 3, the last show in the 2010 Savannah Music Festival’s Connect Americana series.
While Del was away dealing with a family emergency, his son Ronnie took a few minutes to talk to us. A member of the Del McCoury Band since 1981 (when it was still the Dixie Pals) Ronnie McCoury is a mandolin player and harmony vocalist who’s made several solo recordings, including a children’s bluegrass album, Little Mo’ McCoury.
The band also includes Ronnie’s brother Robbie on banjo, fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram.
Together, these four sometimes tour and record (without Daddy Del) as the Travelin’ McCourys. Shortly after the full band’s Savannah gig, the Travelin’ McCourys will embark on a monthlong national tour backing country superstar Dierks Bentley.
Clearly you grew up in a musical family. Was it a forgone conclusion that you would be a musician too?
Ronnie McCoury: When I started with my dad’s band, I’d just turned 14. I’m 43 now. I never thought anything else. And when I got older, and into high school and all my buddies were talking college, I just wasn’t thinking that way.
Delete - Merge UpI didn’t know what we’d be able to do. My dad always had a side job – he worked in the timber business. He was a logging man. About the time I graduated school, in 1985, he had decided he was doing it enough, that he didn’t have to have a day job. I guess he knew he had at least the core of a band, and he had the time.
My dad was a weekend warrior. He could make some trips, though. The northeast, you know – in 400 miles you could be everywhere in the northeast from where we were at in Pennsylvania. Then he started going out west – they’d go play in, say, Oklahoma. He did that all through the ‘70s.
All the band members in the Dixie Pals had day jobs. That’s just what you did. You worked hard and you played on the weekends.
I always thought it was interesting that the band was called the Dixie Pals when you were based in Pennsylvania, pretty far from Dixie.
Ronnie McCoury: (laughing) Yeah, but I think most of those guys had roots in the south. One of the guys in the band, way back, had said “You’ve got to have a band name. The Dixie Pals!” My dad’s easygoing and he just stuck with it. In a way I wish we’d kept it, I really do.
Do you remember thinking “OK, I can do this and make a living”?
Ronnie McCoury: Sure, because we had been around David Grisman. Here’s a guy that was very successful, making a living playing the mandolin. Not even being a vocalist but playing the mandolin. And that kind of stuff hit me because he wasn’t just a bluegrass mandolin player. He was a mandolin player’s mandolin player.
I was 18, 19 and we went to his house. He was somebody I looked up to. Besides all of my heroes, from Bill Monroe to whatever. Bill Monroe’s just on a whole other level than everybody, to me.
I guess if there was a kind of epiphany or anything, it would have been in my early 20s, when we decided to make the Nashville move. We came down thinking well, if we do it and it works, good. If not, my parents kept their house up north. That’s when we all started really trying to do it. Because of that, we all focused more, I think. And then we started getting some accolades.
Does it help you to draw from outside the well, as it were, and bring other musical styles and influences into what you do with the Del McCoury Band?
Ronnie McCoury: I think so, and I think Dad would say that too. My brother and myself, we listened to all kinds of music that every teenager listens to – in the ‘70s and ’80s, classic rock and Southern rock. And realizing that there’s a lot of elements of what we do in that kind of music.
I read one time where Carl Perkins said “All we were trying to do in Memphis was trying to put rhythm ‘n’ blues and bluegrass together.” Things like that kind of stick with you.
We worked with Jerry Douglas when I was in my 20s, and he kinda made us think a little outside the box in some way.
A lot of people say “We like the traditional better.” They call us a traditional bluegrass band, but we have been able to step outside that box, in and out.
My dad’s voice is what it is – it’s high, and it’s lonesome. Whatever he sings, he just puts his mark on it. He’s like a lot of great singers – when they sing it, it don’t seem like the same song. It’s their song.
You made a record, The Mountain, with Steve Earle. That’s outside the box. How did that come about?
Ronnie McCoury: My dad cut one of his songs called “Call Me If You Need a Fool.” It was kind of a short song, and the record company called Steve up and asked if he would write another verse.
This was in 1990. And I think that was the first thing Steve wrote in four years; he was in a real downward spiral there for a while. And it lifted him up. He wrote it and faxed it to the studio.
Later on, we were in Nashville. We didn’t know each other. We were playing, and he came to us – he wanted to make a bluegrass record and would like for us to back him up. In a month or two, he had it written; we got into it and made it.
It’s all very, very live. We did it in one room, just like you’d be standing in front of a microphone, you know?
Tell me about the Travelin’ McCourys.
Ronnie McCoury: Basically, my dad wants us to get out and get our feet wet and be prepared for the future. So we do that, and we have a rotating guitar player. We do all the singing. It’s kind of taken off.
I think, in a way, that we have a brand – and this is one way to get it a little cheaper!\
Savannah Music Festival
The Del McCoury Band
Opening: Dixie Bluegrass Boys
Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.
When: At 7 p.m. Saturday, April 3
Tickets & information: www.savannahmusicfestival.org