Bluegrass still golden for McCoury
By Geoffrey Himes
Friday, November 2, 2012
In the 1950s, when Del McCoury was growing up on a farm near York, Pa., almost all of his high school friends were gaga for rock-and-roll. But McCoury went nuts for Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs.
“When I heard that three-finger banjo roll, that was it,” he recalls. “I thought nothing else, not Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley, was as good as that.”
Back then, McCoury says, when you listened to hillbilly radio, you could tell who the artist was after the first few notes, because each one was a stylist.
“These days,” he laments, “a lot of bluegrass bands sound the same. I’m not going to name any names, but when I hear them on the radio, it takes me a long time to figure who they are. But when I hear someone like the Gibson Brothers, I know it’s them from the first note. They have that little thing in their voices that no one else has, like Dolly Parton does.”
McCoury, 73, mentions the Gibson Brothers because they’re opening for the Del McCoury Band on Friday as part of WAMU’s “Bluegrass Country” program’s 45th anniversary concert at Lisner Auditorium. And, although he’s too modest to say it, no bluegrass singer is more distinctive than McCoury. There’s a flinty edge to his piercing tenor as it lands right on top of the beat, reinforced by a bluesy shading to the melody and a declarative courage to stand up to any situation, from a departing woman to a dwindling bank account. And the instrumental backing -- Del on guitar; his sons, Ronnie and Rob, on mandolin and banjo; Jason Carter and Alan Bartram on fiddle and bass -- projects just as much personality, for many of the same reasons.
The Del McCoury Band has been as dominant in this era of bluegrass as Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys were in theirs. To see the chiseled, silver-maned McCoury towering above his sons and their peers, all dressed in white shirts and dark suits, each one bobbing toward the single mike as it’s their turn to sing or solo, is to witness the best string band of our time. McCoury’s quintet has won the genre’s highest award -- the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year -- nine times and remains most likely to be cited by critics and non-bluegrass musicians as their favorite bluegrass performers.
One reason for that acclaim is that McCoury long ago discarded his adolescent habit of listening only to bluegrass. He has also welcomed collaborations with everyone from Phish and Steve Earle to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
“I think I have an inquisitive mind,” McCoury says. “I’m always up for a challenge. I think it’s the mystery; I always want to hear what this musician might sound like next to that musician. . . . When I was young I thought Bill Monroe didn’t learn anything from anyone, that he invented everything himself. But I learned years later that wasn’t so. He would go to New Orleans and listen to those horns. I can hear that influence now, even if I couldn’t hear it then.”
In 2009, McCoury was invited to sing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans, and his vocal on that band’s version of the 1918 standard “After You’ve Gone” was included on the album “Preservation: An Album to Benefit Preservation Hall & the Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program.” Since then, the bands have played together at summer festivals and in 2011 released the album “American Legacies.”
Few had predicted it, but the combination of a Dixieland band and a bluegrass group proved a natural fit. Both genres are rooted in America’s pre-Elvis musical traditions; both are small, acoustic combos, often featuring banjo and upright bass; and both emphasize virtuosity and improvisation.
There’s even a small overlap in repertoire. When they were recording “American Legacies,” for example, McCoury asked the Preservation Hall musicians whether they knew “Milenburg Joy,” an instrumental recorded by Monroe in 1976. They did, but knew it as “Milenberg Joys,” the 1923 tune written by New Orleans jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton. By whatever name, however, the spirited, syncopated number provided common ground on which Ronnie McCoury’s mandolin could comfortably coexist with Freddie Lonzo’s trombone.
The McCoury band also appears on the new Preservation Hall Jazz Band album, “St. Peter & 57th St.,” with such guests as Earle, Trombone Shorty, Mos Def, My Morning Jacket and Allen Toussaint, among others.
“It’s fun for us,” McCoury says, “because my musicians won’t play their parts the same way every night, and these guys are the same. That’s the way it should be. Clint [Maedgen], their singer, could be a bluegrass singer. He told me lately that he’s going to start buying old country records and bluegrass, because he’s doing those blues yodels now. Charlie [Gabriel], their clarinet player, is 80, but he can still dance. He’ll play a line and then nod at Jason, my fiddle player, who will play the same thing but with some extra notes.”
For all his openness to other projects, McCoury’s heart still belongs to traditional bluegrass. Last year, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the father of bluegrass, the Del McCoury Band released “Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe.” Several of the 16 songs are numbers McCoury sang in the early 1960s when he was a member of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys.
“I wanted to play banjo with him,” McCoury recalls, “but he had just hired Bill Keith. So he asked me to play guitar and sing lead. He told me, ‘If you can do this, you’ll like it better.’ I didn’t think so because I was such a banjo enthusiast; I even quit his band so I could play banjo with a band in California. But Bill was right, I did like singing and playing the guitar. I went back to that and did it for the rest of my life. It’s worked out for me.”