Del McCoury ~

The Fire In the Music

by Jim Catalano

One of the most highly acclaimed artists in the bluegrass world, Del McCoury has won a truckload of awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association in the past several years. Fronting a red-hot band that includes his two sons, Ronnie and Rob, on mandolin and banjo respectively, along with bassist Mike Bub and fiddler Jason Carter, McCoury has released several blues-tinged albums for Rounder Records, including 1993's sterling "A Deeper Shade of Blue." A new album, already done, is on the verge of release from Rounder.

Born on Feb. 1, 1939, McCoury has been playing music nearly his entire life. Last fall he toured the country, along with Laurie Lewis and J.D. Crowe, as part of the Rounder 25th Anniversary Bluegrass tour, and as the "festival season" begins, McCoury and band will keep up their regular heavy touring schedule through the summer.

In a phone call from his home in Nashville, McCoury shared some of his reminiscences of his decades in bluegrass.

Jim Catalano: So how did a kid growing up in the 1950s fall in love with bluegrass instead of rock and roll?

Del McCoury: My mother played guitar, harmonica, piano and sings, so I grew up listening to her. My older brother played guitar and sang the country songs that were on radio back then, like Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams. He bought a Flatt & Scruggs record in 1950, and I liked that record. It was Earl Scruggs' banjo picking that turned the light on somewhere in my head. I wanted to learn to play the banjo, so that's what I did. By the time I got to high school, everyone was listening Elvis and Jerry Lee and rock and roll, but I had already heard Earl Scruggs, so I didn't pay any attention to rock and roll.

I played the banjo from 1953 to 63, until I went with Bill Monroe -- he wanted me to play guitar and sing lead for him. I was never really interested in singing -- even though I had always been singing, I got sidetracked by that banjo. I liked to play it and liked the sound of it. It so happened that he needed a singer, so I did it exactly for a year. I never did go back to playing the banjo. I was into singing by then, so I just kept singing and playing guitar.

Catalano: Have you playing professionally all your life?

McCoury: I got my first job playing banjo on the radio when I was just out of high school. I worked jobs off and on, but I've always played music. I really like music and that's probably why even when I had to work a day job during the week and play on weekends, I did that. I just enjoyed music, and still do.

Catalano: Blues themes permeate your music. Has that influence always been there, or did you find later that you relate to the blues?

McCoury: I think it's always been there. My mother's from Western North Carolina in the mountains, and when she sang mountain-style music, that was blues, man. That's sad stuff. It's a little too sad sometimes. I'm sure that comes from my mother, but when I went to sing with Monroe, his stuff was bluesy, too. When I think about it, I think I fit right in with him when I started singing with him, because his style was a lot like what my mother sang when I was little.

Catalano: Your voice seems like the epitome of "high and lonesome."

McCoury: It's the only way I ever knew how to sing. The Flatt and Scruggs style is a little bit different than the Monroe style. I went to work with him and that's the way we sang back in those days, and it stuck with me through the years.

Catalano: You've been around bluegrass awhile. Would you say its popularity has increased?

McCoury: It is more popular. I've been with the music so long that I've seen what it's been like through the years, and it's bigger now than ever. At the IBMA awards last week [in Owensboro, Ky.], they were booking hotel rooms 50 miles away. When it first started in 1985, it was hardly anything. Just by that you can tell it's growing. There were people there from the Czech Republic, Germany, Japan. There's been bluegrass bands in Europe and Japan since the 70s. I toured Japan in 1979 and Europe in 1985, and that's when I realized what a big bluegrass following there is in those countries. Europe has changed -- people in those Communist countries had old bluegrass records, but they couldn't get out of their countries. There were some of them at the IBMA this week. There's been bands from Russia at IBMA before, too. We have a lot of fans in every country.

Bluegrass has grown in this country, too. The bluegrass festivals back in the 1960s started, and then this music had its own fans from that on. The first festival was in Tin Castle, Va. [near Roanoke] in 1965 and within 5 years there were festivals in just about every state except in the desert states. And now they're everywhere.

Catalano: Alison Krauss has become very popular, but people will ask, is it still bluegrass?

McCoury: People will argue about that, but she's kept bluegrass instruments. She told us up there at IBMA that she's not leaving bluegrass. Of course, country's been good to her lately, but she loves bluegrass. That's what she learned when she was a little kid. She still loves it, so I imagine it's hard to cross over.

Catalano: It must be quite a thrill to play in a band with your two sons.

McCoury: It's exciting, to say the least. They're great musicians, and Ronnie's been singing now for seven years. They did just an album for Rounder. The band helped them, but they got some other musicians -- fiddlers, dobro players -- for a different sound.

Catalano: Did you push them to become musicians?

McCoury: I really didn't. I didn't think about them playing music when they were small. I didn't push them to play anything but there were instruments around the house and they would just pick them up and try to play them. I was amazed at how fast they learn to play; they were so quick in picking it up. So by the time they were out of schooling, they were playing with me.

Catalano: You're known for stepping beyond traditional bluegrass songs to record songs from Kevin Welch and other songwriters. How do you pick songs?

McCoury: I don't know, I never know what I will like. Something will strike me when I hear a song, but it's really hard to say what it is. Sometimes there's a story in a song that I like, and sometimes there's a melody. With that Kevin Welch song ["True Love Never Dies"], it was the melody -- I could just hear this band doing that song. But it's funny, before we record I probably listen to a couple hundred tapes of songs. So sometimes when we do an album I hate to leave a song out, but it won't go with the album too well. On my new album there were a lot of good songs that we couldn't do, but I really liked the ones we did record.

Catalano: So what will the next CD be like?

McCoury: I think it's different. I did that Robert Cray song, "Smoking Gun." That guy can really sing. I don't think I can sing like him, but I like the range in that song, so we cut it. We did "Love is a Long, Long Road" uptempo, and it really turned well. There's only one song that I wrote, but there are quite a few blues on the album.

Catalano: After singing the blues for all this time, has it affected your personality?

McCoury: I don't know if it has or not [laughs]. I don't think so. I think I have just about the same personality I did when I was 20. I've just been cursed with this kind of music since I was a kid, I can't get away from it. But I like the challenge of just singing. A lot of times with blues numbers you can turn the notes and sing it however you feel that day. It gives you a chance to improvise. Unless you're doing a duet or trio, of course, then you have to stick to the melody. I like that challenge of singing bluesy numbers and you don't have to sing them the same everyday.

Catalano: What do you see in the future of bluegrass?

McCoury: All I can see it is it growing. We organized the IBMA in 1985, and you'll never go anywhere until you're organized. We have to get bluegrass on television more, but I wouldn't like to see it get watered down or changed. The first time I noticed bluegrass, it really grabbed me, and if kids at a certain age heard what I did then, I just know how it would excite them. When I was growing up the old hillbilly and country music were kind of draggy, and the pop music of the time was mostly people singing slow. If kids gets to a certain age and hears this music that's really zipping, I know it will grab them. I didn't pay attention to the singing, it was the instruments back then. That's what gets people in the beginning, the fire in the music.

Copyright 1995 Jim Catalano

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