Del McCoury: Pioneering Preservation

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

With wondrous humility, Del McCoury connects the dots of his expansive career that lead him back to the great Bill Monroe. The now 83-year-old bluegrass musician, with bountiful awards and honors under his belt, has accomplished the ultimate goal: ensuring the longevity of an age-old music tradition.  

To do so, McCoury made a vessel of himself and his music. Wielding a congenial spirit and an open mind and ear, he’s built bridges across seemingly distant genre traditions throughout his continuous contributions. 

On February 18, the Del McCoury Band tacked yet another record onto their spanning discography—Almost Proud. The 12-track collection, tactfully derived from a towering stockpile of pitches, is the product of pandemic-allotted time.  

Listening through the nearly 200 tracks—some of which had collected dust for over a decade in a box of CDs—McCoury set aside about 25 songs that piqued his interest. He describes the final product, like all of his past albums, as “a variety of things.” 

Nearly 15 years old, “Running Wild” is a lonely original for McCoury who falls outside his own definition of a songwriter: “A guy who wakes up every day and writes at least one song because that’s what he wants to do.” Unlike his example of Woody Guthrie, McCoury’s songwriting was bred from necessity. Further, he admits, “I always dreaded it.” 

Instead, he listens carefully to the compositions of others with a deep respect for their craft. “For the most part, it’s the story in the song that I’m attracted to,” he says.  

McCoury invites Vince Gill into the rough-and-tumbling “Honky Tonk Nights,” where the longtime friends exchange verses and admiration for the deep-run-roots of country music. He takes a steeper turn with “Don’t Live Here Anymore”—a lesser-known number from a recent Kris Kristofferson record. “Rainbow of My Dreams,” which he heard first sung by a young Lester Flatt in the 1940s, offers a retrospective reprise for a full-circle moment. 

The Del McCoury band’s 17th album is best summated in the central lyric of the adopted title track: When I think of where I came from / And all I’ve been allowed / It makes me for a moment almost proud

Photo by J. Fasano

Penned by Eric Gibson and Mike Barber, and hand-delivered to McCoury via his son, “Almost Proud” resonated on a spiritual level. For years, McCoury forged ahead as a pioneer of bluegrass. And this song is his opportunity to finally look back on the path he paved, and a well-deserved moment to take it all in. 

He winces bashfully at the reference of a “living legend.” Yet, McCoury’s imprint on American music over the last six decades is unavoidable.  

McCoury’s musical genesis dates back to age nine on his family’s farm in rural York County, Pennsylvania. Needing someone to play music with, his older brother taught him to a few chords on the guitar. Every week, his brother brought home a 78 RPM, but it was an early Flatt & Scruggs album that opened a door. 

“I kinda liked playing guitar, but I was never fired up about it until I heard Earl Scruggs playing ‘Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.’,” McCoury explains. “A kid’s got to be a certain age, and I was 11, and completely taken over with him. I thought, ‘Man, that’s the coolest thing in the world. That’s what I want to learn to do.” 

This entrance to the banjo ignited the spark that still resides within McCoury 70 years later. Luck struck about 10 years in. As he recalls, he “just happened” to play a gig with Bill Monroe who was headed to New York City and needed a banjo player.  

“I guess he liked my playing and offered me the job,” McCoury recalls. Though his 22-year-old self declined. 

In 1963, he returned to take him up on the offer, but Monroe needed a guitar player and lead singer. Hesitant at first, McCoury says he’s never looked back. 

“I knew how to play guitar, and he liked my voice, so I was lead singer,” he laughs at the now-distant memory. “Here’s this guy, on Decca Records and had been on the Grand Ole Opry since 1939, and he’s gonna stick me out there in front of all these people and I don’t even know what I’m doing.” 

When McCoury departed to form his own band in the mid-1960s, he felt he must fill the post as guitarist in order to hold the rhythm to keep his amateur band together. He took over as lead vocalist on the verses but handed off the role for the chorus sections where he would echo back in his distinctive tenor.  

Parables from his road experience with the “Father of Bluegrass” translated well at the helm of The Dixie Pals. “One thing I found out being with Bill was how to keep a band on their toes,” says McCoury. 

A key characteristic of Monroe’s memorable stage performance was the absence of a setlist. As McCoury recalls, after a round of instrumental introductions throughout a theme tune, and a reliably crowd-pleasing opening song, Monroe would take requests from the stage, dictating the run-of-show throughout the evening.  

“He had recorded since 1939, and this is 1963,” McCoury explains. “it’s just like a guy pitching a ball; You don’t know if it’s gonna be over your head or hit you in the head or what. Someone in the audience would just name a tune out of the clear blue sky and he’d say ‘Let’s do it!’” 

McCoury has followed suit since solidifying the Del McCoury Band. The current lineup is comprised of his son Ronnie, who joined on mandolin in 1981, another son, Rob stepped in on the banjo in 1987, Jason Carter on the fiddle since 1992, and bassist Alan Bartram since 2005. McCoury credits the steadfast nature of the band dynamics for his unmatched abilities as a bandleader and the spontaneity sans setlist for maintaining an energized stage presence year after year.  

“Sometimes they will request a song that I have recorded, but I do not know anymore,” he laughs. “There’s just so many, and a 90-minute show just goes by, it’s a snap of your finger. But we still try to do the same as Bill did.” 

This performance approach is just one component of an immeasurable inheritance of Monroe’s influence that established McCoury as the link between the bluegrass patriarch and the emerging generation reaching out for the torch.  

Perhaps the weight of such a mantle forced McCoury to consider what it means to preserve tradition. Rather than locking bluegrass in its original form, the artist discovered something more sustainable. In the spirit of Monroe, he became an ambassador of the genre. He expanded genre bounds to uncover the common ground, still maintaining the integrity of foundational roots music. This interpretation allowed him to purvey traditional bluegrass to his successors with such ease. 

“I learned by Bill’s example more than anything,” he says. “He never told me to do this or that or showed me anything. I just watched him.”  

Travis Book of The Infamous Stringdusters is among the generation that came on down the line. As the songwriter and bass player for the Grammy Award-winning ‘jamgrass’ quintet, Book appreciates McCoury as a show-not-tell type of figurehead. 

“Del’s always been a shining example of how to conduct oneself as a professional musician,” says Book. “No ego or hubris, humble and kind, but fiercely dedicated to his craft, his sound, and his music.” 

Photo by Lily Sitero

The Infamous Stringdusters are exemplary of the linkage that delivered ancient tradition to a modern generation. Their latest effort, Toward the Fray, speaks to current themes of societal friction and moral responsibility within an evolving soundscape. He credits the dynamic sound to “continuing pursuit toward the fringes of acoustic music, incorporating songwriting, arrangement, and sonic ideas from Rock, Pop, EDM, Jazz, Country.”  

Book adds, “Our music is true Americana; in it, you will find the seeds of nearly every American music form with the song acting as the nexus. It’s still all about the song.” 

Following their Bill Monroe tribute album, Toward the Fray takes a page from their predecessors whom they consider pioneers. “It was clear to us, from early on that our responsibility was to be true to ourselves and the music that we were creating and that making an original statement was the only way to go,” says Book. “Bill Monroe did that and spawned an entire genre of music—talk about a legacy.” 

When asked about the role he played in shaping an emerging generation of bluegrass musicians,  McCoury laughs and credits his manager who introduced him to Trey Anastasio, lead singer of Phish, after the band covered a McCoury song in the late ’90s.  

“I was pretty ignorant of some of the jam bands, so I really didn’t know what I was getting into,” he recalls. “We got up there and Trey said, ‘What can we sing together? I was ashamed to tell him I didn’t know anything they did.” 

When Anastasio suggested “Blue and Lonesome,” McCoury was certain they couldn’t be thinking of the same song. The version he knew—“I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome”—was a staple of his nightly set on the road with Monroe. Still skeptical, McCoury began to hum a bit of the tune Monroe wrote with Hank Williams and recorded in 1950. 

“He piped up, ‘Yeah, that’s it!’ And so I figured right then this guy must have researched bluegrass because that was the beginning of it,” McCoury continues.  

Joining forces, Phish and McCoury’s band played “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” along with other bluegrass selections interpreted through the psychedelic soundscape of progressive roots rock that drew over 77,000 people out to the Camp Oswego festival that summer of 1999. 

“I was enlightened by that, that day if nothing else,” he says.  

McCoury considers that collaboration his entrance to the “jam band scene.” But more befuddling was the Del McCoury Band becoming a headlining fixture of the New Orleans Jazz Fest, where he was first introduced to the revered Preservation Hall Jazz Band.  

“I don’t know why we were playing Jazz Fest, but we did, and we got to know those guys pretty well,” McCoury laughs. He recalls the jazz band inviting them to the studio to collaborate: “I thought boy, that’s an idea.”  

His son Ronnie recalled an instrumental tune Monroe had picked up by memory after spending time in New Orleans, titled “Milenburg Joy.” When McCoury’s band pitched it to the jazz group, they responded enthusiastically to what they knew as “Milenburg Joys” a staple of jazz traditions. 

Similar to the Phish collaboration, this unlikely camaraderie revealed a labyrinth of deeply entangled musical roots. Their shared version of “Milenburg Joys” honors the Bayou-bred jazz traditions with buoyant tones from shimmering horns. Yet, tangential moments of string-picking intertwine with prompt time-keeping percussion, melding key elements of two age-old traditions that converge across their collaborative 2011 album, American Legacies.  

He concludes, “I believe the biggest influence I had was that jazz band.” 

McCoury still considers himself a traditionalist at heart, but pushing genre bounds proved to be the best safeguard of the sacred genre.   

“All music is related,” says McCoury. “It all fits together if you’re willing to be open-minded.” 

Photo by Lily Sitero

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