Del McCoury Brings His Own Brand of Bluegrass to the Huck Finn Jubilee
By Terry Paul Roland
Talking with Del McCoury is like spending an hour with a favorite uncle you haven’t connected with in years. He’s congenial, funny and quick with scattered stories of his historic past. He’s not someone you want to get off the phone with very quickly.
As one of the major elder-statesmen of bluegrass music who once played with Bill Monroe, he carries his credentials without pretense. Along with his sons Ronnie, Rob, Jason Carter and Alan Bartram, the Grammy-winning artist will be bringing his brand of progressive bluegrass to the famous Huck Finn Jubilee held in Rancho Cucamonga, California on June 13-15th. The Jubilee has long been a California tradition with three-days of concerts, showcases, workshops and family fun. Other headliners include The Traveling McCoury’s (Del’s sons along with Jason Carter and Alan Bartram), The String Cheese Incident, Rhonda Vincent and Sam Bush.
During our conversation from McCoury’s home in Nashville, we covered everything from his roots in bluegrass music to his bad-ole-days working with Steve Earle on the classic The Mountain album. His observations gave a peek into the workings of a musician with creativity that flows as deep and wide as the mighty Mississippi River.
“I was born in Pennsylvania, but my people were from North Carolina.” He explains. “So the music we listened to was really country. Back then, we didn’t call it bluegrass. It was just country music” He laughs. “My brother played guitar and sang songs by Ernest Tubb, Hank Wiliams and Ray Price.”
With the influence of his family’s musical taste and especially his brother, McCoury explored the idea of playing music for himself. It was when he first heard Earl Scruggs that he knew where his fingers were going to land….right in the middle of a banjo. When the rest of the world was rocking’ to Elvis and “That’s Alright, Mama” it was the flip side of that record, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” written by Bill Monroe and originally recorded the Bluegrass Boys with Lester Flatts on guitar and Earl Scruggs on banjo, that rocked McCoury’s world and gave him a new direction to follow.
“I started working for Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys in 1963, only he had me play guitar and sing lead.” He remembers. “We didn’t play a bluegrass festival until 1965. I think that was the first bluegrass festival. Before that we played package shows with Red Foley, Ray Price.” He says. “Back then, bluegrass artists were really just considered country artists. There wasn’t any segregation of the music. That didn’t happen until the bluegrass festivals started.”
Bluegrass became internationally popular as a genre partially because of television. When many banjo players first heard Earl Scruggs’ three-finger banjo picking style on the popular comedy show, The Beverly Hillbillies, today they liken this to something similar to the discovery of electricity.
Also bringing bluegrass out of Kentucky and to the rest of the country was the folk music boom that began with Pete Seeger and The Kingston Trio in the late 50’s. It resulted in folk festivals such as Newport in Rhode Island. Bluegrass players began to be invited to these festivals during the early 60’s because of their authenticity. This included Del McCoury during his time with Bill Monroe.
Eventually, McCoury quit Bill Monroe’s band and moved to the bluegrass friendly skies of Southern California. “I was offered a job with The Golden State Boys with the Godsin brothers in 1964. That was around the time that area around L.A. had groups like The Dillards and The White Brothers picking around town.” He says. “So I moved to California.”
His time with The Golden State Boys gave him quite an education including long party nights with The Dillards in Topanga Canyon after they’d spend hours shooting the Andy Griffith Show.
During that time he appeared with The Golden State Boys on the nationally televised hit show on ABC, Hootenanny. He also found his way to Doug Weston’s Troubadour in West L.A. where he would meet folks like the emcee, Michael Nesmith at the weekly Hootenanny. He laughed as he told me one story of an eccentric singer he met at the shows there: “I remember there was this fella. A skinny guy. He never had his own guitar. He was always borrowing mine. He was from Nashville originally. He’d sit on a stool and sing the craziest songs. He had one called, “Dang Me.” It became a local hit. Pretty soon I started hearing it all over the country!” He laughs.
Roger Miller went on to be the first country singer to win a bouquet full of GRAMMYs in the major categories and became a country music icon.
But, McCoury’s fortunes in California diminished as the work dried up with the advent of the folk-rock movement of 1965.
“It got to be where there wasn’t much work for bluegrass other than small clubs. I moved back home to Pennsylvania.”
It was 1965 when the first bluegrass festivals began to happen. Word got out among the folk music community and it wasn’t long before McCoury received a call from a fan from Berkeley, California. McCoury was working a day job as a logger when the call came in.
“This fella called me at home and said he’d booked Monroe at festivals before. His name was Chris Strachwitz. He had a small record label (Arhoolie) in Berkley, California and wanted to record me. When he told me he was from Berkeley, I thought we were looking at a long term kind of thing. Turns out he said he wanted to do the session, ‘tomorrow!’ He was two miles from my house,” McCoury laughed. “We set up in my house and I had my brother sing with me. We hired Bill Emerson to play with us. We made that record in just a few days. It came out on his label.”
That obscure release would begin a long solo career that would result eventually in the formation of The Del McCoury Band with his sons. He won his first GRAMMY in 2006 for Bluegrass Album of the Year for The Company We Keep. He won a second GRAMMY in the same category in 2013 for his latest release, The Streets of Baltimore.
Along the way, McCoury has established himself as the midpoint between the traditional and more radical forms of progressive bluegrass music. He has kept to Bill Monroe’s slick, conservative appearance on stage, but he has ventured out to more experimental material including his engaging version of the Richard Thompson classic, 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.
He has gone from no amplification, to the one mic form of bluegrass performance to working with a full sound system to amplify the pure sound of his music.
“Most of the time from the stage, the music sounds better than what’s going out to the audience,” he says. “We’ve done one-mic from the stage for vocals, but now we’re back to using three mics.” He laughs.
In 1999, McCoury and sons collaborated with the celebrated singer-songwriter, Steve Earle on the Grammy nominated album, The Mountain. It was a successful best-selling album of originals written by Earle. However, when asked how he liked working with Earle, McCoury replied bluntly, “I didn’t.”
Earle had written some bluegrass songs and pitched the idea of recording them when The McCourys backed him up on a song at The Station Inn in Nashville.
“Now, I like Steve, but I had a problem with his vulgarity. I wasn’t going to subject bluegrass fan to hearing it on stage. I finally got into it with his manager and told him to ‘take this show and shove it.”
They have since reconciled and remained friends to this day. However, from the tone in McCoury’s voice, he won’t be collaborating with Steve Earle anytime soon. But, The Mountain remains a landmark album in Americana music today.
Most recently, McCoury has been collaborating with another unlikely artist, Woody Guthrie.
“We played a tribute in Tulsa and Nora Lee, Woody’s daughter, loved our music.” He explains. “She paid us a great compliment when she said to me, ‘if my dad were alive, that’s the band he’d have.’ She gave me 24 songs. It was easy to write music to because you could tell from the words he was writing ¾ time.“ He says. “We recorded 12 of the songs and filmed a live show to go with a release.”
The new album and DVD will be released this fall.
With a career in authentic roots music that has spanned the last six decades, Del McCoury and sons remain not only heir apparent to Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, but stand in the steady stream of great American music showing no signs of letting up.
Visit Del online at delmccouryband.com and on Facebook. Del will be one of the headliners at this years Huck Finn Jubilee. The West Coast’s premier Bluegrass Festival. Father’s Day Weekend 2014. Tickets available now at: http://bit.ly/HuckFinnTix