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Del McCoury et al are winners, again

By Jon Weisberger, December 1997

It's official: the Del McCoury Band rules. The Nashville-based ensemble once again took the International Bluegrass Music Association's Entertainer Of The Year award, and followed it up with a near-lock on the instrumental awards.

Three of its five members won top honors on their respective instruments, and the band as a whole took Instrumental Group Of The Year.

"It's always an honor to win awards like that," McCoury says. "I'm so busy, I hardly think about it beforehand, so it's surprising and exciting when it happens. We just do the best we can; we've had the band together for a while - Jason (Carter, fiddle player of the year) and Mike (Bub, bass player of the year) joined me and my boys, Ronnie and Rob, back in 1992, so we've been at it a while, you know. And, of course, all the personal appearances, and all the recording, too, that helps put us in folks's minds."

Ronnie McCoury was picked as mandolin player of the year.

Modest and soft-spoken though Del McCoury is, the North Carolina native has one of the most impressive resumes in bluegrass, and it's no surprise that since he went into the music full-time, he and his band have been among the most popular acts on the bluegrass circuit.

McCoury's skills were honed through years of hard work, beginning with years spent as a banjo player and tenor singer in the clubs of eastern Pennsylvania, before switching guitar and singing lead, a change made when he joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in early 1963.

"I was working with Jack Cooke (a former Blue Grass Boy himself, now with Ralph Stanley) when Bill stopped to pick him up on the way to New York; he needed a banjo player, so I went with them and played the show, and Bill offered me a job. After a month or so, I decided to go down to Nashville and see about it, but by then, Bill had hired (Boston native) Brad Keith to play banjo, and he asked me if I would play guitar and sing lead."

McCoury laughs, adding, "You know, I had sung every part, but mostly tenor up until then, so I knew the words to the choruses but not the verses. Learning all those songs was the hardest part of the job."

McCoury spent a year with Monroe, then worked briefly with the Golden State Boys in California. He returned to Pennsylvania, starting his own band, the Dixie Pals, just in time to catch a new development - the growth of bluegrass festivals.

"We were the first part-time band to get on a lot of those," he says. "Carleton Haney booked us on all of his festivals, and I was able to keep a sort of regular band and still work a day job. All through the 1970's and into the 1980's I was doing logging work; I had kids, and I knew I had to have a steady job. I was fortunate that I could work for my wife's uncle, so there was a little bit of flexibility, and we could travel out to Oklahoma or up to the Northeast - but we still usually had to go right back to work when we got home."

As Del's sons grew, so did his discography, with albums for Arhoolie, Rounder and Rebel. By the late 1980's, with Ronnie and Rob developing a serious interest in playing bluegrass themselves - Ronnie on mandolin, Rob on his dad's old instrument, banjo - he took the plunge into full-time music, returning to the Rounder label with 1990's acclaimed "Don't Stop The Music," a mostly-family project that featured the boys and brother Jerry McCoury on bass.

A move to Music City, and the addition of Carter and Bub as permanent band members, kicked The Del McCoury Band's career into high gear.

"We went to Nashville in 1992, and got ourselves an agent there. It's a great center for all different kinds of music, with great recording studios, so it seemed like the place to be. It's good for the boys, too, because they can work on sessions and do different kinds of things in town," McCoury says.

Indeed, Ronnie and Rob's names come up frequently in the interview, and it's obvious not only that McCoury is a proud father (and bandleader), but that in the McCoury family, learning about music is a two-way street.

"The boys have a lot of energy," he notes. "I taught them early what a good band is, told them who to listen to - especially Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. Now they're bringing new things in for me to listen to - 'Dad, I want to play you some stuff,' they'll say - material I probably wouldn't have come across on my own."

It's not surprising, then, to find the paradox of a band widely viewed as strongly traditional employing material that ranges as far afield as Tom Petty's "Love Is A Long Road" or bluesman Robert Cray's "Smoking Gun," both on McCoury's latest album, "The Cold Hard Facts."

"I can hear a song one time," he says, "and tell if I like it, and if I can do it any justice."

Once that decision is made, though, a song is reworked and revised, shaped to fit the McCoury mold. "Things change almost without your realizing it," he notes. "You don't realize how much you change something until you go back and listen to the original."

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