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Ronnie McCoury breaks new ground

By Jon Weisberger, June 2000

Though he's happy these days to be making his home in Nashville, it wasn't always that way for Ronnie McCoury, member of his father's Del McCoury Band and longtime holder of the International Bluegrass Music Association's Mandolin Player of the Year award.

In fact, he confesses, the title track of his solo debut on Rounder, "Heartbreak Town," was written about Music City shortly after his move there in 1992.

"I really didn't start writing songs until I came to Nashville, and 'Heartbreak Town' was one of the first, if not the first song I had ever written," he laughs. "It was kind of a missing home thing - a country boy in the city. It was a big change for me. I was raised within miles of where I was born, I had lived there all my life - and my parents, of course, spent close to 50 years in the same spot, so it was a big change for me."

"But I was ready to go," McCoury continues. "I always thought that we would leave. Anyhow, when we moved here, I saw that everybody seemed to be a songwriter, and I thought well, I'm going to try do something - kind of try to leave a mark."

McCoury has certainly left his mark, both as an outstanding, creative mandolinist and as a gifted singer, and if he hasn't yet made his mark as a writer, that's only because 'Heartbreak Town' is still new. McCoury is responsible for 9 of the 13 tracks, and of those, only 4 are instrumentals.

"I guess I mainly wanted to record a bunch of stuff that had been piling up on me," he says. "Generally, with my dad's records, I'll do an instrumental and sing a song, or something like that, and I just thought it was time for me to do my own thing, get it out there and move on, write some new stuff."

"It's funny what people like off the record," he says. "There have been a couple of people who've come up to me and said that they think 'Last Call' (a lively, rockabilly-influenced drinking number) is the best song there is. I guess they like honky-tonk. But you know, I wasn't sure about putting that song on the album, because I didn't know how it would fit, or where it would fit - and it wound up going the only place I thought it could, as the last song. But I'm kind of glad I put it on there, because you never know; maybe someone will pick it up. Steve Earle says, 'that's a jukebox hit.'"

Touring with Earle, as McCoury and the rest of the Del McCoury Band did last year in support of their joint release, "The Mountain," helped bring the young musician and his bandmates before new audiences.

McCoury turns thoughtful when discussing the band's career. "We're only playing a handful of bluegrass festivals this year, and that's good and bad," he offers. "You get away from people that have been behind you - in my dad's case, that might mean for 40 years - and then on the other hand, you're breaking new ground."

"It's been going really well," he says. "We've been playing a variety of different things. We've been doing a lot of rock clubs in these college towns. The people seem to know that if you're playing this club you're hip, or whatever, and they come out. People come up to me and say, 'I never did hear bluegrass before,' or 'I never did like bluegrass until tonight.'"

"But I don't think there's too many of the long-term fans coming to these places. Some of the venues are rock clubs where you stand up - they have about 30 seats, and that's it. Some of the older fans have told us, 'we didn't know it was going to be like this!' So, you hear that, and then you look out and see a crowd that's a bunch of kids. We see both sides of it."

"I've been with my dad 19 years this year, and I've been playing to the so-called older crowd, or the bluegrass die-hards, I guess you might call them, all my life. I've known some of these people since before I started playing, 20 years or longer. And I've been there, and I've seen their loyalty, but I also see these kids coming up. We've had people come up to us and say, 'this is our 100th show' - and they're not even 30 years old. I don't know what that's about; it just happens, it's just kids, you know."

"We basically do what we do, and my dad always takes requests. It blows me away how inundated we get with requests, and the funniest thing is, dad will say 'has anybody got any requests?' and then he won't hear a one of them because they're yelling them out. The guys in the band have to shoot them back at him. Surprisingly, it gets really deep - 'deep catalog,' as (famed WSM DJ) Eddie Stubbs says. We've played some place where people have yelled for stuff from off the first record. And then a lot of it's our latest, but we do a lot of our latest stuff anyhow. It really amazes me - the kids, they must be buying the albums."

The solo disc features support both from the Del McCoury Band (Del, brother Rob on banjo, bassist Mike Bub and fiddler Jason Carter) and some of Nashville's most respected bluegrass pickers, including Stuart Duncan and Jimmy Campbell on fiddle, Gene Wooten and Jerry Douglas (dobro), Béla Fleck (banjo), Terry Eldredge on guitar and vocals, David Grisman on mandolin and, on the opening and closing cuts, Larry Atamanuik on drums.

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