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Del McCoury: the hardest working man in bluegrass

By Robert Wooldridge, January 1999

Del McCoury has long been acclaimed as a leading force in bluegrass. These days, with one album currently high up on the Americana chart and two more to follow in February, McCoury might also be viewed as the hardest working man in bluegrass.

McCoury, 59 on Feb. 1, was inspired early on by his mother, who played guitar, piano and banjo. His older brother taught him how to play guitar, but McCoury says it was "when I heard Earl Scruggs, that's what really turned me on to playing."

After playing in various regional bands in the Baltimore area, McCoury's first big break came in February 1963 when he joined the legendary Bill Monroe.

McCoury had played banjo with former Bluegrass Boy Jack Cook. Monroe came to Baltimore to ask Cook to join him for a show at New York University. Cook turned Monroe down, but Monroe offered McCoury a job playing banjo.

However, by the time McCoury got back to Monroe to accept the offer, Bill Keith had already been hired to play banjo. McCoury was then hired on as a lead singer and guitarist.

McCoury stayed with Monroe for a year. "He never gave out compliments to the musicians that were with him, or had been with him, or other singers," McCoury says of Monroe. "You never knew if you were doing it right or wrong because he wouldn't tell you."

Looking back now McCoury says he has a better understanding of what Monroe looked for in a musician.

"When I was with him I was trying to sing to him. But actually, I figured this out on my own later, he had so many different lead singers, and he would sing to them because he was a tenor singer - and he would try to blend with whoever was singing lead with him," McCoury recalls. "I think he liked different sounds, you know, and every time somebody new came there was a different sound to the band."

After a year with Monroe, McCoury headed to California. Six months later, he headed back East because there were not enough jobs in California and his "wife got homesick."

McCoury worked at a sawmill in Pennsylvania for awhile and played music mostly on weekends. After recording his first album in 1967 he formed the Dixie Pals. "From then on I had my own band. Before that, it was kind of loose."

In the '80's, McCoury added sons Rob and Ronnie to the band, which became the Del McCoury Band in 1991 when bassist Mike Bub and fiddler Jason Carter came aboard.

The band has been the most awarded group in the '90's by the International Bluegrass Music Association with multiple group and individual honors. "It's always a surprise to win something, you know," says McCoury. "And it's a great feeling."

McCoury credits much of his success, and the growth of bluegrass as a whole, to the IBMA. "Since we got organized in 1985, it's grown so much since then," he says. "There are countless bands in Czechoslovakia - and they make their own instruments. Isn't that funny? Twenty years ago, that would not have happened."

McCoury is optimistic about the continued growth of bluegrass, but admits, "I don't know if I'm a good judge because we've gotten so popular just in the last few years, but the music has, too."

Currently McCoury and the band are certainly keeping busy. Last fall, "Mac, Doc, and Del" was released on Sugar Hill featuring Mac Wiseman and Doc Watson.

Producer Scott Rouse came up with the idea to unite the three. "I didn't know really what he had in mind. He just kind of got us all to each come up with something we like to do, and then we worked together on it. It was fun to do - almost live. I really enjoyed working with Doc and Mac."

There is a hidden track at the end that McCoury says Rouse had them record for a movie. "Get Down on Your Knees and Pray" was rejected for inclusion in the movie, but Rouse decided to tag a portion of it at the end of the cd.

"That came from Bill Monroe," McCoury says of the song which also appears in a full version on his upcoming "The Family."

"I don't think he wrote it, but his name is on it. I have a feeling he got it in the Deep South."

"The Family" is set to be released in February on Ricky Skaggs' new label Ceili (pronounced KAY-LEE). "I have more records sold on this new album - and it's not even released yet - than I ever sold with my old label."

McCoury says that Ceili is an Irish word that Skaggs describes as "when a few people get together and play for fun."

Though several originals appear on the disc, McCoury's favorites are a couple of cover tunes. "We did that old 'Nashville Cats,'" he says, referring to the '60's rock hit by the Lovin' Spoonful. "I always loved that song."

There is also a reworking of Johnny and Jack's "Crying Heart Blues." McCoury could only remember one verse of the song, so he asked Eddie Stubbs of WSM to play it for him so he could learn the rest. "And I found out there was only one verse. I wrote a second verse because it was just too short."

Also set for a February release is Steve Earle's "The Mountain" on which the Del McCoury Band backs up Earle. "He told me about a year ago that he was going to do a bluegrass album. and he wanted us to help him do it. And I thought, 'Well, that might be five years from now.' And, heck, it wasn't no time, and we had the thing done."

McCoury says that playing with sons Rob and Ronnie has been helpful to him as a musician. "I rely on those guys pretty heavy. They're just there, and they take a lot of the load off me. They seem to know exactly what's happening on stage."

In the beginning, McCoury passed what he knew onto his sons, but "then I started hearing things and I didn't know what they were, and I thought I better let these guys alone. They listen to all kinds of music, but they have a feel for what I do."

McCoury believes bluegrass will continue to grow in popularity because of the number of young people playing it these days. "And I mean young kids, and they're good. When I was growing up, the average person didn't even know what it was. Nobody else knew who Earl Scruggs was except for me in school. They knew who Elvis Presley was, and Jerry Lee Lewis - that's what the kids my age listened to then. But I had already heard Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe, so I was headed in another direction then already."

After nearly four decades as one of the most influential bluegrass musicians around, Del McCoury seems poised to continue his leadership role well into the next century.