A few weeks back, the Del McCoury Band picked up the Grammy award for Best Bluegrass Album of 2006.
Their winning effort, The Company We Keep, is the second theyíve released on their own McCoury Music label. Longtime fans of this Nashville-based outfit ñwhich prominently features Delís own sons Ronnie (on mandolin) and Rob (on banjo and guitar)ñ have hailed the disc as one of their finest albums yet.
A true anomaly in the entertainment business, The Del McCoury Band has risen among the ranks of traditional country artists to achieve something singular and impressive. After decades of diligent roadwork -- and a storied history that saw Del playing guitar and singing lead in the early Ë60s with no less than the father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, in the past few years, McCoury and his band have emerged as one of the most popular and critically adored roots music combos in the world.
One of the genreís only true crossover success stories, theyíve found themselves welcome at all manner of venues and events. From major traditional bluegrass festivals peopled with diehard purists, to hippie-fied jam-band summits, to nightclubs more known for hosting hard rock acts than suit-and-tied gentlemen holding fiddles and mandolins, singing anachronistic tunes about love, loss and the Lord.
Whatís even more amazing is that theyíve won this acceptance from such diverse crowds without catering to the whims of the market.
Regardless of their surroundings, they carry themselves with a playful air that only serves to enhance their positions as ambassadors of North American roots music. A ticket to see the Del McCoury Band guarantees the same thing no matter when or where theyíre appearing. Itís that sense of consistency and steadfastness that has earned them such devotion from such a wide gamut of listeners.
Thereís something very comforting about artists who hold tight to their values over a long period of time, and wait patiently for the work they do to come into vogue. It takes a type of courage and fortitude that most folks simply donít have or canít stomach. One can literally hear those decades of fortitude ringing through McCouryís high, lonesome vocals.
A professional musician for well over forty years, Delís seen fads come and go, and watched the stock of traditional country and bluegrass music rise and fall. For decades heís been a known and respected figure among bluegrass aficionadoes, but itís only recently that his name has become much more of a household word.
The current resurgence or traditional Americana music (fueled in no small part by the breakthrough mainstream success of the Coen Brothersí 2000 film O Brother Where Art Thou? and its accompanying soundtrack) has been kind to the last few stalwarts of the genre who still ride the rails, such as Del and Dr. Ralph Stanley. The sweetness of this ìbetter-late-than-neverÎ fame is not lost on Del.
ìIíve played music forever,Î he says. ìBut it all just seemed to come together in the last ten years or so.Î
ìThe thing is, Iíve never changed my style at all. Iíve always done my own thing, always had confidence in myself. I always knew that someone would like my sound.Î
After a simple misunderstanding found Del and his band in the middle of a fierce bidding war between two handfuls of high-profile record labels (something which literally never happens in the world of traditional country music), they wound up passing on all offers, and in 2003, began to handle all their recording, touring and marketing in-house.
That business decision has served them well, indeed. Now, in 2006, theyíre readying the release of their first-ever gospel album, a live DVD, and another disc of early bluegrass standards.
A kindly, good-natured man whoís quick to laugh and seems genuinely touched by the support heís received from fans the world over, Del spoke to me at length from his home in Tennessee. What follows are some of the highlights of our conversation.
Connect Savannah: You rarely spend more than ten days on the road at once?
Del McCoury: The way we do it now, it leaves more time for all of us to be at home with our families. A lot of people, theyíd just as soon stay out there, and a at one point, Iím sure Iíd have been right there with Ëem! (laughs) Thereís a time when I might have been satisfied to be out all the time, but now Iíd just as soon be home as not.
Connect Savannah: When was that?
Del McCoury: Oh, that was probably 20 years ago and even before that. See, Iím 67 now. When I was young, I played with Bill Monroe, and he was on the road a lot. That wasnít a problem for me, because I loved to play music. I loved it so much I probably wouldíve played it 36 hours a day! (laughs) But now I find that you have to get away from it every now and then to feel refreshed. I like that change. It causes me to work hard and I like a challenge.
Connect Savannah: Donít all pro bluegrass guys have to love a challenge?
Del McCoury: Yeah, but I guess you could say itís a challenge everytime you get up on the stage, no matter what kind of music youíre doiní. Speaking of a challenge, Iíve been in the studio lately with Vince Gill. And heís doiní four records at once! All different styles, and with different people playiní on each one! (laughs) He asked me to come in and sing tenor with him, and you wanna talk about a challenge? Buddy, heíll put you right up there! (laughs) Youíre in the sky all the time, because he sings so high anyway. I was in the booth and doiní just a line or two at a time because I went in cold, not knowiní any of the songs. He told me that he lives to be challenged.
My boys from the band did the songs with him about two weeks ago, and when I was through with my parts I wouldnít leave right away. Iíd stick around to hang out and watch, and heíd start doing something completely different. Heíd just switch gears like that! It was wild.
Connect Savannah: In one of the songs on the new CD, you sing ìI played in churches, fairs and dive bars.Î Why do you think youíve been welcomed into so many different situations?
Del McCoury: I like variety. On stage we never play the same show twice in a row. We donít even go by a setlist. I might have a few numbers that work real well for introduciní the bandmembers and highlighting something they do, but after that, you know, more often than not itís request time. Iím glad to take requests as long as itís something Iíve actually recorded! (laughs) Iím awful glad folks donít ask me to play somebody elseís show! Now, sometimes weíll play a place and there will be a lot of folks there whoíve literally never seen live bluegrass. Weíre their introduction to it. And inevitably, one of them will want to hear ìRocky Top.Î (laughs) Itís the only bluegrass song they know the name of! (laughs) But we usually go ahead and do it, because I know itíll make them happy. For the most part, these days we get a lot of kids cominí out, and youíd be amazed, but they know my records from 30 years ago! I canít believe it when they request some of this old stuff.
Connect Savannah: Is playing concerts easier or harder at your age?
Del McCoury: It goes both ways. Itís the craziest thing! I think I was more physically able with my voice and my guitar playing when I was 25. But then again, I wasnít nearly as good at knowing how to entertain people. Iím smarter now. You get educated at how to make people enjoy themselves, and you find out itís not singing and playing. Itís talking to the people. Communicating with them. If you do requests, youíre gonna have to talk to Ëem, and youíll find out what they really want. Sometimes youíll get 600 requests at once! (laughs) Thatís what Iíve learned through the years.
Somebody one time asked Curly Seckler ñwho was the tenor singer with Flat & Scruggsñ when did you guys have time to rehearse? Because in their early days, they were travelliní around and playiní live on TV stations back when that was still brand-new. Theyíd be in Johnson City, Tn., one night and Knoxville the next. And Curly said, well, we rehearsed on stage! Itís sink or swim when you do that. (laughs) Lester Flatt would just start off a song without any warning, and theyíd have to jump into whatever he was doing and make it work without letting the audience know they were doiní it off the top of their heads. (laughs)
Itís like that with us in a way. We rehearse mostly when weíre gettiní ready to do a record. We get it all down before we ever go into the studio. But on the road, the only real rehearsal we get is at soundcheck when nobodyís around and weíre settiní up microphones. You have to keep up with it, or youíll lose it. Especially at my age. If I didnít play on a regular basis, or took a long break from the guitar, Iíd definitely lose my chops, regardless of how long Iíve been at this.
Connect Savannah: So how are things going with the new label? I know that youíve been pretty self-sufficient for a while, but this is a change for the band.
Del McCoury: It is. We just finished out first-ever gospel record. Our second record on our own label just won a Grammy, so Iíd say things are goiní very well. Plus, the way weíve set all this up, weíll own the rights to those masters, and eventually so will all our kids. If we hadnít done this, somebody else would own it all. There are still people who own the tapes and the rights to stuff I did in my thirties and forties. Weíve been able to buy back the rights to a lot of it, but thereís still some that we have no control of.
Connect Savannah: Itís too early to be predicting what the next generation of McCoury's will choose for a career -- but would you be surprised to hear that some of your grandkids on the back of this album cover eventually took up bluegrass or roots music as their main gig?
Del McCoury: Probably they will! (laughs) Just beiní around all this music influences Ëem, I guess. Itís funny. When my sons were small, I had a band, and everyone in my band was in their thirties. I never thought too much about my boys playing music for a career, and then I turned around one day and they were on stage with me! (laughs) Theyíre great musicians, and I could never replace them.
Connect Savannah: This CD contains your first attempts at co-writing songs. How did that come about, and why had you never done such a thing before?
Del McCoury: Iíll tell you what. Up until now, I wrote songs by myself. The first one was in Ë66, or close to it. I kinda thought of it as a private thing ñ writing a song, you know? I donít know why, but I did. It just never occurred to me to do it with someone. Then my manager said there must be two million songwriters in this town. Heíd said most of Ëem would love to write with me. I was not interested. Then Stan said, well, why donít we find someone you already know. Now, Iíd known Harley Allen since he was a kid. I wrote with him two different times, and I liked it! Then I started writing with all kinds of people. (laughs)
Connect Savannah: Besides the gospel record, what's next for you and the band? Do you still have that CD of old bluegrass standards in the can?
Del McCoury: I still have all that stuff. (laughs) We never did put it out. I think we cut almost 20 songs. You know, back when I first started, I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, close to Baltimore. So, of course a lot of the work we did was in bars in Baltimore. Thatís a rough seaport town, and thereís some rough places there. Boy, I wouldnít go in some of those places today for a million dollars! (laughs)
But back then, you had to, and I sure saw some stuff that Iíll never forget. We were like most amateur bands in that we didnít have a lot of our own material. We had to play all the big guysí songs ñ like Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe. A lot of those tunes I knew so well, that I thought I should record that stuff before I got too old to do Ëem justice. It was just a collection of old songs that I heard a lot. Mainly Bill Monroe. Of course, I worked with him as his lead singer.
Connect Savannah: For a festival show like this one ñwhere the artists on the roster include everyone from classical pianists to African dancersñ do you craft a set that's at all different from something you'd do at a festival specifically geared to bluegrass or jam band music?
Del McCoury: Naw. We donít change a thing, man. (laughs) Weíll try to play some of our newest stuff, but once I get the band all introduced, I tell the crowd that before too long weíll start taking requests. Usually everybody starts holleriní out songs right away! (laughs)
I played in California somewhere, and this guy in the front was insisting on having me to sing this song Iíd done like 20 or 30 years ago, and he wouldnít let up! After him holleriní for this thing for about a half an hour, I said, okay, now look here. Iím gonna do my very best to sing this old song, but I have not even thought of it in years, and thereís no guarantees that itíll be any good! (laughs)
So, whoever kicked it off did it just perfect, and we sang a verse and a chorus, and I gotta say that I was really hittiní it. I surprised myself! (laughs) Then we come to the second verse, and buddy, I had no earthly idea! We just kept vampiní and playiní and finally I asked him if he knew the words well enough to give me a hint on how it went. And man, he started singiní at the top of his lungs! He sang it in the right key, and he stood there and showed a lot of nerve.
Connect Savannah: So he actually wound up doing a duet with you?
Del McCoury: I guess he did! (laughs) See, I think thatís how a live show should be. It should have mistakes in it. It canít be perfect like a record. I learned a long, long time ago that you should just face that reality right off the bat. It wonít be perfect. A lot of guys want their backup fellows to play all the breaks just like they are on the records. Man, thatís like tying a good playerís hands behind his back! Nobody feels the exact same way on two different days, so how are they supposed to play a song the same way?
The Del McCoury Band plays Trustees Theater at 8 p.m., Saturday, March 25 as part of the 2006 Savannah Music Festivalís ìMusic Of The American SouthÎ Series. Tickets are available at www.savannahmusicfestival.org, or at the Trustees Theater Box Office. Call 525-5050.