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Del McCoury strikes up the boys again

By Tom Netherland, July 2001

When the Del McCoury Band won its fourth straight Entertainer of the Year award at last fall's International Bluegrass Music Alliance awards, few were surprised. As with most years, sure enough there was stiff competition. Yet in bluegrass, no band has been hotter than McCoury's over much of the past decade.

Indeed, album after critically acclaimed album has built as if with bricks one strong career. With their latest, "Del and the Boys," put another brick in the wall.

Not that they've fallen into a same ol' same ol' groove, either. Songs from the non-bluegrass sources of Richard Thompson ("1952 Vincent Black Lightning") and even Frank Sinatra ("Learnin' the Blues") mix well with McCoury originals "Unequal Love" and "A Good Man," assuring the band of an edge that its attained over the past decade or so.

Whoa, back up buddy....Frank Sinatra? The Del McCoury Band covers Ol' Blue Eyes?

"Jason Carter (McCoury's fiddler) played 'Learnin' the Blues' to me," says Del McCoury from San Francisco. "When Jason was born, his dad played bluegrass and sang bluegrass. Jason has a brother who plays jazz, a horn player. Jason had heard a lot of the jazz things because of his dad."

Gradually, Carter convinced an initially understandably reluctant McCoury to take a shot at singing the song. With a some pause, McCoury stepped lightly into learning the tune, albeit with his own touches.

"I'd heard Frank Sinatra sing, but I'd never heard him do this one. I told Jason a little bit later that I could do it, but I wouldn't have those same notes. It's worked out real good. We get a lot of requests for it already," McCoury says, adding with a laugh, "Frank would turn over in his grave if he heard this version."

Maybe so. But then, maybe Hoboken's finest would tap a toe instead, maybe even nod in approval. Still, that's it for Sinatra's link with bluegrass. For now, anyway. Elsewhere in the album, DMB sticks more closely to the cuff, as with Grand Ole Opry member Jeanne Pruett's "Count Me Out."

"I heard (Nashville's WSM disc jockey and Opry announcer) Eddie Stubbs play it on the radio one day," McCoury says. "I called Eddie and said, 'Man, can you get me a tape of that?' I really liked that tune."

Likewise, McCoury says Cindy Walker's "The Bluegrass Country" caught his ear just so.

"Mac Wiseman had sent me an envelope full of songs and said that he wasn't recording right now," McCoury says. "I forgot about them. So I had this song and heard this lady singing. It was about Kentucky, and she's from Texas. So, Ronnie (McCoury) said, 'why don't we get Ricky (Skaggs) to sing with you and that'd make it authentic,' cause Ricky's from Kentucky, you know. It's a great song, ain't it?"

Ditto Verlon Thompson's "Gone But Not Forgotten." Need a pick-me-up? Try this one out. It grabs pavement and peels through all the gears, burning rubber in no time flat, flat-out flying. McCoury says that they'd finished the album and were previewing it for Skaggs, on whose Ceili Music label DMB records and that Skaggs said that the album could use a real barn-burner.

"I was thinking the same thing," McCoury says. "Verlon gave us that song years ago, two, three four years ago, something like that. We liked the song, but just never did record it. We were all done, but went back in and cut that. When we went in the studio I told Ron, 'You know, I'm not too familiar with these chords. Why don't you sing it, and we'll record it, and then I'll come back and do it.' He sang the verses, and when we got it cut, I said, 'Now, it's done. All I'm gonna do is put a little tenor to it.' So, I went back and put a little tenor to it."

Sounds simple. But look closer at McCoury's career and the man's talent came through years of touring, gigging with one band after another and paying close attention to those who built the house of bluegrass in which so many stand today.

Namely, Bill Monroe. McCoury worked for Big Mon for about a year, from February 1963 through early the following year when he moved west to California.

"I learned a lot from him without him even saying anything," McCoury says. "I had wondered what it would be like to play with him. He had great timing. The hardest part was learning the words to all those songs because I had never been a lead singer before that. I was a part singer, mainly tenor. When I went to work with him, I had to sing lead, and that was easy too except that I had to learn all these words to all these songs. That was the hardest part."

Still, the schooling held tight. Perhaps more than anything, McCoury's time with Monroe best prepared him for becoming a bandleader himself.

"It did that. It was better for me later on when I got my own band," McCoury says. "He told me, 'Del, I need a guitar player and a lead singer in the worst way.' That year, he didn't have a banjo player or a lead singer until Bill Keith came along. He just told me that that was what I was gonna do. But the first thing I'd learned to do was play the guitar, so I knew guitar playing."

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