Bluegrass star will shine at Strawberry

Written by Gary Linehan, The Union Democrat August 16, 2013 12:52 pm

(Editor's note: The Strawberry Fall Music Festival was cancelled due to a massive wildifre in the area. This story was published before the cancellation was announced.)

Grammy Award-winning bluegrass icon Del McCoury — whose resume also includes logger, mechanic and record company executive — will be among the headliners at the Strawberry Fall Music Festival, taking place over Labor Day weekend.


The Del McCoury Band will take the stage at 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 1, wrapping up four days of music at Camp Mather near Yosemite.

It will be the band’s sixth appearance at the nationally acclaimed festival.

“A lot of them kind of run together, but this one sticks in my mind,” McCoury said by telephone from his home in Hendersonville, Tenn., about 20 miles outside Nashville. “It’s not an easy place to get to, and I remember there was snow around the kitchen area one year. But it’s a beautiful place. I look forward to that one.”

With more than 50 years in the musical spotlight, McCoury has played countless venues around the world. And at age 74, the word retirement never comes up.

“I’m busier than ever,” he said.

Born in North Carolina and raised in York, Pa., McCoury honed his skills as a banjo player with Jack Cooke’s Virginia Mountain Boys in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., from the late 1950s into the early 1960s before being recruited by the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, in 1963.

Monroe, however, wanted someone to play guitar and sing lead vocals.

“I played quite a lot of music before I ever went to work for him,” McCoury noted. “I had been playing banjo for 10 years, since I was 13, and I thought I was pretty good. He said ‘I need a guitar player and a lead singer worse than anything and I think you can do it.’ So I had to learn all those songs, going back to 1939, and I learned them pretty quick.”

To get the lyrics, McCoury consulted the recordings.

“The only way you could get the words in those days was from the records,” he said. “I was next to the National Life and Accident Insurance Company that owned WSM Radio, and on one of the floors they had a library with mostly 78 rpm records. You could play them but you couldn’t take them out. So I’d put the needle on and take it back off and write down a verse and then do it again. It was kind of a slow process but you could get it done.”

It was no use asking Monroe for the words, he said, because only the singer knew all the verses. 

“He only knew the choruses, except for his own special songs that he did every night, like ‘Kentucky Moon,’ ‘Mule Skinner Blues’ and ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky,’” McCoury said.

After a year and one album with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, McCoury quit to provide steady support for his new and growing family.

 “When I was single I didn’t have to make a lot of money to get by, but once I got married things changed,” McCoury said. 

He and his new wife, Jean, moved to Los Angeles in 1964, where McCoury played with the Golden State Boys, but the couple returned to Pennsylvania after less than a year. 

He went to work full-time in the logging industry before forming his own band, the Dixie Pals, in 1967.

Over the next 15 years, the band made weekend appearances at bluegrass festivals and recorded for labels from the obscure to roots music institutions like Arhoolie and Rounder Records. 

“It’s a lot easier playing guitar than logging,” McCoury said. 

In the woods, he said, “I did every aspect — run saws, run skidders, pull my own cable. If anything broke you had to fix it right there. I had one loader torn all to pieces and some guy said ‘You’ll never get that thing back together’ and I said ‘Just stand here and watch us.’”

McCoury learned to repair machinery at an early age.

“I grew up on a farm and we worked on our own equipment,” he said. “I don’t remember ever taking it anywhere. It’s something you just get used to.”

When he returned to playing music full time, McCoury became the tour bus driver and chief mechanic.

“I’ve had four buses in my life and I overhauled one three times,” he said. “I guess you could call it a ‘have to’ case. If you wanted to travel, you had to overhaul it. There was no other way about it.”

But in 2007, Jean put her foot down — on the brakes.

“She made me quit driving,” he said. “Now if we need a bus, we lease one. I still have my Silver Eagle, but I never run it.” 

 In addition to McCoury on guitar and lead vocals, the Del McCoury Band includes his sons — Ronnie McCoury on mandolin and Rob McCoury on banjo — plus Jason Carter on fiddle and Alan Bartram on bass.

Ronnie McCoury was 14 when he joined the Dixie Pals and younger brother Rob came on board five years later. They changed the group’s name to the Del McCoury Band in 1988 and moved to Nashville in 1992.

There has been only one change in personnel since the McCoury band formed more than 20 years ago, with Bartram replacing Mike Bub in 2005. 

They have gone on to win dozens of International Bluegrass Music Association awards, nine Grammy nominations and the 2005 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, “The Company We Keep.”

McCoury became a member of the legendary Grand Ole Opry in 2003, 40 years after first appearing there with Bill Monroe.

 A 50-year retrospective of McCoury’s career was released in 2009.

In June 2010, he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts and in 2011 was elected into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame, joining such luminaries as Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, John Hartford, Red Allen, J.D. Crowe, the Osborne Brothers, the Carter Family and other legends.

And there are no signs of slowing down.

“I don’t have much spare time,” he said. “I’m busier than ever because I’ve got all these other projects going.” 

 He currently is performing in four different musical configurations and is writing the music to more than a dozen unpublished Woody Guthrie poems, in addition to running his own record label, McCoury Music.

“I’ve been doing a few shows with Sam Bush, just the two of us,” he said. “It’s mostly just guitar and mandolin and duets.”

But it also features McCoury’s return to the banjo.

“Sam tells me people expect me to play the banjo and I say I’m too old and too stiff,” McCoury said. “But I tell him I’ll do it, or I’ll try, and I got to where I can play ‘Sally Gooden’ pretty good. I surprised myself. It’s like riding a bike — you never forget, you just get rusty.

“Another thing we’re doing,” he said, “is a bunch of shows with myself, Bobby Osborne, Buddy Hicks, my brother Jerry and J.D. Crowe, called the Masters of Bluegrass.”

“The MOB,” as it’s known for short, is touring in 2013 only. California shows are scheduled Oct. 3 in Santa Barbara, Oct. 5 in Northridge and Oct. 6 in San Luis Obispo.

“We did a record with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans a couple years ago and we still have a few dates left with that, and then we’re going to do another record,” McCoury said. 

McCoury is a youngster compared to some of the Preservation Hall members.

“We played Las Vegas one time and the clarinet player, Charlie Gabriel, had a birthday, he just turned 80,” McCoury recalled. “He plays great and he sings great and he gets around like he’s 60. Well, those guys had to fly out at 7 the next morning and we figured when they got done with the show they’d head straight for the hotel room, but when we’re walking around where the machines are, there they all are, even Charlie.”

McCoury also is in the process of writing music to unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics. At the request of Nora Lee Guthrie, one of Guthrie’s daughters and president of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, he has finished and recorded 12 songs and is working on seven more.

“She found a whole bunch of stuff just recently they never knew they had,” he said. “We did a showcase in New York close to where she lives of his songs and then a show of my regular stuff. We have a lot of dates left with that too.”

One of the new Guthrie songs is titled “Women’s Hats.”

“He left California for New York City and wrote ‘This Land Is Your Land’ soon after that, and the next day he wrote ‘Women’s Hats,’” McCoury said. “He was looking down from his hotel window and had never seen so many different women’s hats, so he wrote a song about it and I had to put music to that. 

“Another one was about an auto mechanic,” he said. “Those two are kind of comedy, but there are some that are real serious. One he wrote the day one of his kids was born, and it’s really touching. Then there’s one called ‘Family Reunion,’ when all the family gets together but every year someone else is missing. He’s got a way with words, let me tell you.”

The Guthrie album is one of three new recordings due for release on the McCoury label. Another is Rob McCoury’s first solo banjo project and the other is a new album by the Del McCoury Band.

“I just approved the master yesterday,” he said last week. “Our manager is working on the jacket and we’re hoping to release it by Sept. 20.”

McCoury said he isn’t sure what songs the band will perform at Strawberry but that so far they haven’t played any from the new album in concert. 

“We usually take requests from the audience and don’t have time for anything else,” he said. “I think I’ll try to do some from the new record.”