A few months shy of his 75th birthday, Del McCoury is at an age when many of his bluegrass contemporaries and peers are scaling back their recording and touring activities or even hanging it up altogether. No rocking chair for McCoury, though, as he remains one of the most active and energetic performers in American music. The latest Del McCoury Band release, "The Streets of Baltimore" dropped in September on his McCoury Music label.
The title track of the new disc is a cover of Bobby Bare's 1966 hit, and McCoury says, "This was kind of an afterthought, doing that song. I had a bunch of songs all ready to record, and I thought, ‘you know, I should do a song about Baltimore because that's kind of where I got started.'"
Born in York, Pa., a mere 50 miles or so northeast, McCoury served a musical apprenticeship of sorts playing in the assorted bars and clubs in downtown Baltimore and north and east of the city along U.S. Routes 1 and 40, which in the pre-interstate days were the main arteries into and out of town. The names of many of them still roll easily off his tongue – "Chapel Café...Jazz City...Carlton Motel...Greenhill Bar…Stone Ball Inn."
Some of them could be as dangerous for the musicians as for the clientele.
Laughing, McCoury recalls, "You know, in those days...the owner would always tell the band, ‘Now look, if a fight breaks out in here, don't stop playing. If you stop playing, everyone will be entertained by the fight.'"
Another night he was suddenly startled on stage.
"(The place) didn't have a stage, actually, we just stood in the corner…everybody was dancing, and this and that, and this knife stuck right up in the wall beside me. And the guy was actually throwing it at some guy that was dancing with his wife, and he missed that guy - and he missed me, too. I'm glad he did. But those were the days, you know?...Kids are dumb, I guess. We were pretty young then."
McCoury's regular sidekick in those years was Jack Cooke, a Virginia native who had performed as a teenager with Bill Monroe before migrating to the Washington/Baltimore area. (Cooke later would become a fixture on bass for four decades in Ralph Stanley's band until his passing in 2009.) Traveling between Nashville and New York, Monroe often found himself in need of sidemen. One such occasion in Baltimore in 1963 changed McCoury's life forever.
"(Bill) needed Jack to go with him to New York City, and he didn't have a guitar player or a banjo player at this time...I don't think he came for me, he came for Jack. But Jack said, ‘Well, Bill, do you have a banjo player?', and (Bill) said, ‘No', so they just took me along. So that's how I met Bill, and he offered me a job that very night."
"In fact, the first job I played with Monroe was on banjo," McCoury continues, "but Bill wanted me to play guitar and sing lead – he needed a lead singer. So I thought, ‘well, I'll try it and see if it'll work.' Because I had played with so many non-professional guitar players in the early days, I was a lead player, and a lot of times we'd have a guitar player that would speed, and we'd have one that would drag...and I thought, ‘I know what these lead guys need, they need a solid rhythm', that's exactly what they all needed. And I thought, ‘I'll see if what I do works with Bill Monroe, with his mandolin chop, which he played (for) rhythm.' And that was the easiest thing, was (to) play rhythm with Bill Monroe for me, there was just nothing to it. I found out then that I could play rhythm."
His time with Monroe also afforded the opportunity to be around and learn from other greats of the business.
"I learned from Lester Flatt, just from listening to him, and watching him, but mainly from listening to what he was doing and also Jimmy Martin because they were great rhythm players. I'm telling you, they were underappreciated when it comes to rhythm."
Leaving Monroe after a couple of years, he moved to California for a while, then moved back home to Pennsylvania, settling in the Gettysburg area for a number of years and playing music on a part-time basis.
"I worked in the woods for a long time. I worked for my wife's uncle cutting timber and doing all facets of that work – driving trucks, and just everything. He knew that I played music, and he'd let me take off and go places, and when I'd get back home I'd go back to work for him. So, it worked out pretty good for me until the kids got through school and we got kind of independent, me and my wife did, and we thought we'll move (to Nashville)."
Ricky Skaggs also urged McCoury to relocate, and on moving there in the early ‘90s he found that Music City had changed a lot since his days with Monroe.
With a solid band built around his sons to back him, the IBMA awards began to collect on his mantelpiece, and the long term result of the Nashville move is that McCoury is arguably the most successful bluegrass musician of the past quarter-century, and to many folks represents the face of bluegrass – including the millions of viewers who saw him and the band in an opening cameo role on the debut last year of ABC's hit "Nashville" series.
"You know, I think the only person who got a speaking part was (my son and band member) Ronnie," he laughs.
Far from slowing down, McCoury continues to find new and different directions to take his music. Nora Guthrie, the daughter of folk music icon Woody Guthrie, approached him about a longstanding project. For the past decade and more she has led a project to seek out folk and roots artists to match music to previously unpublished lyrics of her dad's.
"I played something for (Nora) out in Tulsa some time back, and she said, ‘You know, if my dad had lived he would have loved to have had a band like yours, but he just could never afford a band.' She sent me 19 (lyrics), and I put music to 12 of them, I think, and we went in the studio and recorded them – and I'm gonna do a couple more, that's a little short for a record."
Since moving to Nashville 20 years ago, McCoury has enjoyed the luxury of having one of the most professional – and stable – bands around, with only one personnel change in those two decades, when bassist Mike Bub departed and was replaced by Alan Bartram. It helps, of course, when two of those band members, sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Robbie (banjo) are "home grown," and any band leader would be thrilled to be on stage with a fiddler the caliber of Jason Carter standing next to him night after night.
It's a band good enough, when McCoury does take a little down time, to tour on their own as the Traveling McCourys, with ace guitarist Cody Kilby filling in.
"(My manager said), ‘You know, I can get these guys work,' and I said, ‘You know, I'm getting to an age now – you never know, when you hit the 70 mark, you don't have no guarantees. We'd better get these guys out on the road now, doing something on their own,' because they were depending on me all the time...let them get established in case they need to do it by themselves."
"So we did that." He pauses a few seconds, and laughs. "And they're busy, and it's funny – I'm busier (now) than I was then, with all the other things I've got going."
McCoury photo by Chillywater Photography, Todd Powers