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Del McCoury strikes up the boys again

By Tom Netherland, July 2001

Page 2...

Now, by that time bluegrass was changing. Not only the audience, but life in a bluegrass band changed with the times. Gone, at least for Monroe, were the behemoth cars in which they rode, replaced by large buses. McCoury, for one, welcomed the change.

See, McCoury's career dates to a time when bluegrass bands traveled in those stuffy and stuffed cars, not buses. Back before interstates crisscrossed America, men huddled shoulder to shoulder for hours and hundreds of miles at a time.

"We got a bus when I was with him, but at first he had a '59 Oldsmobile station wagon. That '59 Oldsmobile was an expensive car, but it didn't have any air conditioning," McCoury says. "You know, I gotta say something about Bill. He was a tolerant feller because everybody in that station wagon smoked, including Bessie Lee Mauldin. Kenny (Baker) smoked, I smoked, Bill Keith smoked. He never smoked and never complained at all. That's really something. You know one day he told as we were riding along, 'you didn't know I smoked, did ya?' I said, 'No I didn't.' He said, 'Give me one of them.' I handed him a cigarette and he said, 'Ain't you gonna light it.' So, I lit it up, and it was funny to watch him smoke that cigarette. He'd just puff on it a little bit and blow him a little smoke. He didn't inhale any you know."

But back to the bus.

"So, Bill went to see Johnnie Wright and Kitty Wells. They had a bus for sale, and he bought it. I had drove a truck when I was about 18. He asked me if I had drove anything like that, and I said, 'well, I drove a truck.'"

Good enough for Monroe.

"Buses are easier to drive than a truck, and so he bought it. I used to be his night time driver. You know, there were no intestates in those days. Oh, there was a few. There was a few interstates, but I remember that you could go 40 miles on I-40. It was after you left Knoxville going to Nashville and there it would end at that big mountain, and we'd have to go over that mountain."

Yet while with Monroe, McCoury managed to set to wax several for-the-ages performances, namely 1964's "Roll On Buddy, Roll On." Check out McCoury's moon-scraping high tenor on that song and a burgeoning talent made itself obvious. Still, shortly thereafter, McCoury was gone.

Despite Monroe's rekindled career via folk music's interest and the efforts of music promoter Ralph Rinzler, McCoury struck out for California, new wife in tow. After a short time there and with the Golden State Boys, the Bakersville, N.C. native returned to York County, Pa. and the region that he'd known since childhood.

But bluegrass would have to wait for McCoury. He took on a variety of non-musical jobs until, in 1967, he formed the Dixie Pals. McCoury's acumen grew as he grew more serious.

In 1981, son Ronnie came on board as a 13-year-old mandolin phenom. Six years later, son Rob was added to play banjo. By 1992, with fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Mike Bub, the Del McCoury Band was set, a still stable crew with years and talent to boot.

"You know, it's the longest I've had a band. I've had bands for a pretty good stretch of time, had good sounds and all, but this one has really stayed with me. That means a lot," McCoury says. "It's easier to record because you don't have to show people things. If you record a record and go out on the road, they know the stuff you're doing so it makes it a lot easier."

Along the way, the band has developed a style all its own. Hear Ralph Stanley and you know it's Ralph Stanley. Ditto Bill Monroe. Well, the same goes for the Del McCoury Band. Yet not at the expense of tradition. Traditional bluegrass and Del McCoury like Monroe and his mandolin.

"It's what I heard, and I just can't get it out of my head," McCoury says. "I think that's why I never did stray from that makeup of a band. That's the way I heard it the first time, and it was so exciting. That's probably why it's stayed that way. And you know, I enjoyed back in the 1960's and '70's when there was a lot of newgrass bands. I enjoyed hearing those guys, but not enough for me to even try to attempt to play that stuff."

Still, McCoury wonders about whether bluegrass could get too big for its own good. Few would argue the phenomenal success of "O Brother! Where Art Thou?" but what's the price?

"I don't know. The thing I hate about it is seeing bluegrass get watered down," McCoury says. "It's just like that 'Man of Constant Sorrow.' Now, that boy Dan (Tyminski) could've sang it in that same key that Ralph did it in cause he's got that good high voice, but see, for the movie they had him sing it lower. It would have been so much better, in my opinion. Course, not everybody likes to hear bluegrass the way I like to hear it. I like to hear it get way up there and really grind it."

Kinda like how Del and the boys, do it - bluegrass in overdrive.

Photo by Morello Gherghia

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