Editor’s note: In honor of Del McCoury’s upcoming performance at Firefly Distillery Friday, his first since March, writer Kevin Wilson caught up with the bluegrass legend. Tickets are being sold by the City Paper at citypapertickets.com.
Over the course of a lengthy career, Del McCoury has become widely known for his prowess as a bluegrass bandleader and an unapologetic embrace of the disparate musical forces that lie outside of that world. For these, and other reasons, his family act, the Del McCoury Band, remains a perennial favorite among peers, critics and fans alike.
The 81-year-old McCoury told the City Paper that he discovered his vocation early in life. “A lot of people my age went crazy for Elvis Presley when he first came out and wanted to emulate him, but by then it was already a few years too late for me because I heard a record by Flatt & Scruggs in 1950 and I knew instantly that what they were doing was what I wanted to do, too.”
McCoury started out on guitar as a pre-teen but soon switched to banjo following that pivotal encounter with his older brother’s collection of high-lonesome recordings. It was only after getting invited, somewhat serendipitously, to join Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in 1963 that he reluctantly shifted his focus back to guitar. While ostensibly hanging around to learn the business and to grow his own skill set, McCoury managed to take part in some of Monroe’s most memorable performances and to cross paths with some of the era’s most iconic artists during his all-too-brief tenure as a Bluegrass Boy.
“I met Bob Dylan when we shared the bill at the Newport Folk Festival,” he said. “At the time I thought to myself that this guy really needs to work on his singing voice if he wants to get anywhere. But that didn’t seem to slow him down any.”
Like his mentor Monroe, McCoury has fully embraced the responsibility of creating high-quality work at every turn, and has influenced a great number of other serious musicians along the way, including Phish and Steve Earle.
“When you are onstage you always have to give it your best because you just never know what sort of impact that any given set is going to have on someone. At some point in the ‘70s, I met Jerry Garcia through my pal David Grisman, and Jerry told me that he had come to see me years earlier when I was playing with Bill Monroe and that he was very moved by that experience and a little too star-struck to come up and talk to me afterward because, it turns out, he secretly wanted to be a Bluegrass Boy.”
Even after earning a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts a decade ago, McCoury said there is still a certain thrill attached to writing top-notch songs or finding great tunes to reinterpret. He readily admits that his broad tastes in songcraft were further solidified by adding his sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo) to his eclectic ensemble in the early 1990s. Since then, the Del McCoury Band, which also features Jason Carter (fiddle) and Alan Bartram (bass), has been particularly adept at incorporating rock ‘n’ roll sensibilities into its aesthetic by covering cuts penned by Tom Petty, Richard Thompson, Stephen Stills and others.
Although McCoury and his outgoing offspring have built a reputation as steadfast road warriors, this Friday’s concert at Firefly Distillery will mark the post-lockdown reintroduction of the DMB to live audiences. McCoury said he couldn’t be happier about getting out there again. “It’s been far too long. Our last performance was on a Tuesday in March, and right after that everything was clamped down tight on account of the pandemic.”
Considering these unprecedented circumstances, McCoury remains optimistic about keeping the music turned on for the foreseeable future. “Just like our upcoming show in Charleston, there are plenty of ways that it can be done safely. I was just telling my manager about how I played at drive-in theaters all over the country back in the day. For those appearances, the band would be positioned on top of the concession stand and the music would be pumped out through the speakers at the cars. And if someone liked your song, they would blow their horn.”