Del McCoury Biography
While the accolades and awards are appreciated, Del McCoury will tell you—and mean it—that he was happy when he was cutting timber alone in the woods during the week and playing music on the weekend. “I used to travel forty miles and make seven dollars to play a night of bluegrass,” Del McCoury says. “I always loved playing, always loved the road.” He earns a little more and travels a little further nowadays, but the essential truth remains: Del McCoury plays and sings because he loves making music for a living and appreciates the people who have made that possible.
His love for life and this music is contagious. Regularly drawing SRO crowds which run the gamut from tie-dyed’n’patchouli neo-hippie jammers to button-down Yuppies to suspendered good ol’ boys, The Del McCoury Band may well boast the broadest, most inclusive fan base this side of the Grateful Dead. They are undeniably one of the most talented, revered and vital groups in bluegrass history (and one of the most potent bands in any field today). No less than The Washington Post recently called Del “a national treasure”, while numerous music publications have credited The Del McCoury Band with increasing the bluegrass “hip factor," generating much of the genre's steady upswing in popularity with a more youthful crowd. He’s equally welcome at traditional bluegrass festivals, jam band gatherings, and the most prestigious music venues in America—from Merlefest, to Bonnaroo to Carnegie Hall.
The band’s leader/patriarch/namesake is one Delano Floyd “Del” McCoury, a nimble, inventive guitarist and a master of the ‘high lonesome’ vocal style that is the foundation of the bluegrass sound. The band’s top-drawer instrumental and vocal firepower combined with deep-rooted dedication to hallowed bluegrass heritage have kept them at the top of their field in the hearts of traditionalists, while their consummate showmanship, high spirits and willingness to incorporate writers from eclectic sources into the fold have continued to spread the boundaries of their influence.
At the age of 67, McCoury is at the height of his game, and has become a major force in bringing bluegrass to a wider audience. McCoury—along with his band—has now won more International Bluegrass Music Association awards than any other artist in the genre’s history with a total of nearly 40 individual and group citations from the IBMA--including a whopping nine “Entertainer Of The Year” honors, been nominated for six Grammys—and just won his first in February, has seen his videos welcomed by CMT, joined the venerated Grand Ole Opry , represented the cream of the bluegrass crop on national television, making appearances on Austin City Limits, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, The Late Show with David Letterman, PBS' Sessions at West 54th, and anchored PBS’ first—and immensely successful—national foray into America’s original roots music as featured performers on All*Star Bluegrass Celebration.
Del has also exerted immeasurable influence on a whole new generation of players. “Yeah, I really think we have,” admitted a bemused Del, “especially with the jam bands. The younger bands are mixing electric with bluegrass instruments, and you know a lot of them have come to Telluride and the other festivals for years--probably even before they started playing music.” Perhaps best known for their recording and touring collaboration with Steve Earle in support of their joint recording effort The Mountain, the band has also shared the stage with well-known jam-bands Phish and Leftover Salmon and the remaining members of the legendary Grateful Dead. Among audiences and their colleagues in other musical genres, including country singer Vince Gill--who routinely refers to himself as “the son they don’t talk about—Vinnie McCoury”--the members of the Del McCoury Band are known for their fierce musicianship and a relaxed friendliness.
“It’s funny,” Del continued, “Jon Fishman, the drummer for Phish, told me that they did an article on him for a drum magazine, and they asked him what were some of his early influences. And he told them that one of them was “Don’t Stop the Music”, a record I put out back in ’88 or ’89. But the real funny thing about it is that there was no drum on that record, but it was still one of his influences early on. I thought it was odd, but it didn’t surprise me. It’s always been that way, even back with Carl Perkins and that guitar player from St. Louis--Chuck Berry. They listened to Bill Monroe and a lot of the note patterns that came from his mandolin, because he was playing that down beat stuff; he was playing early rock n’ roll is what he was doing.”
McCoury started out by respecting his elders, too. In 1950 he was an 11 year old boy living on a Pennsylvania dairy farm when he had his first taste of Earl Scruggs. He hasn’t been the same since. “He put me on fire for music,” McCoury says. “Later on, everybody else was crazy about Elvis, but I loved Earl.” McCoury worked in a string of Baltimore honkytonks before signing up as a Bluegrass Boy with Bill Monroe in 1963. But eventually Pennsylvania called him home again and there he turned his attention to raising his family, earning his living in construction and logging while continuing to travel the bluegrass circuit, never straying far from his first love. Through the years he recorded the occasional brilliant album (like 1972’s High On a Mountain), but it wasn’t until 1992 that everything meshed perfectly for McCoury, when he formed the Del McCoury Band. By the mid-90s the group had released three albums that are now gaining momentum as modern classics: Blue Side of Town (1992), Deeper Shade of Blue (1993), and Cold Hard Facts (1996). Suddenly the Del McCoury Band was the toast of the Nashville bluegrass scene and McCoury found himself being an ambassador for the music he has loved all his life.
In typical Del McCoury fashion, he believes their success is less about him than the unique sound of the band “I like it best when we all sing it together.” McCoury has never minded sharing the spotlight with his band mates, which may be one of the reasons they have managed to stay together for so long. The core lineup has been going strong for more than 12 years. The original members are Ronnie McCoury playing mandolin, Rob McCoury on banjo, and Jason Carter on the fiddle. All of them are recognized as being among the best pickers in the business—and each of them have numerous awards acknowledging their extraordinary talent. The new kid on the block is Alan Bartram on bass and Del said it best, “I have no less faith in Alan. He’s up to the challenge.” One reason McCoury gets along so well with his band mates is because they respect musical history. “These guys love the people who first played bluegrass music.”
“I’ve played music forever but it all just seemed to come together in the last ten years or so,” McCoury says. “The thing is, I’ve never changed my style at all. I’ve always done my own thing, always had confidence in myself. I always knew that someone would like my sound.” McCoury says that new fans of bluegrass are spreading the word about the music. “Young people are just wild about bluegrass. This music has grit and young people like that. The general public hears something real in bluegrass. That’s why it’s more popular than ever, I believe.”
McCoury is also blessed to be one of the few bluegrass artists who has some semblance of control over his musical legacy, a rare feat in any musical genre. Over the last seven years McCoury has been patiently reclaiming his rights to old masters and copyrights. He also started his own label in 2003. “That’s a big job,” McCoury says, “but this way I’ll have something to pass onto my kids and grandkids. That’s important.” In the end, McCoury is protecting the two things he cherishes the most: his family and the gift of music. Del joins such varied artists as Natalie Merchant, The Eagles, The Dixie Chicks, and Toby Keith on the cutting edge of a movement to form artist-driven labels as a means to keep full creative control in the hands of the creators--the realization of a dream long-denied even such giants as McCoury’s peers/mentors Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley. Today when you see his albums at the top of the Bluegrass charts—it’s on the McCoury Music label.