Photo courtesy of McCoury Music
Bluegrass legend Del McCoury discusses his 50-year career, from joining Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in the 1960s to multiple appearances at the Bonnaroo music and arts festival in the 2000s. [26:32]
That was The Del McCoury Band playing "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." Welcome to ArtWorks, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Born in 1939 in York County, Pennsylvania, Del McCoury is a bluegrass legend. His music has defined authenticity for hard core bluegrass fans, but Del also serves as a bridge between the original generation of bluegrass performers and today's contemporary musicians. He's played with bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, and the rock band, Phish. He's headlined at the Grand 'Ole Opry and at Bonnaroo. Since 1987, he's fronted The Del McCoury Band which features his sons, Ronnie and Robbie. In 2003, Del received his eighth International Bluegrass Music Association Entertainer of the Year Award, and was invited to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Well, this year, 2010, Del McCoury was named a National Heritage Fellow...the highest honor the country bestows on a folk or traditional artist.
I spoke to Del McCoury when he performed at the Greyfox Bluegrass Festival earlier this summer. I began our conversation by asking him how a kid growing up in the 1950s fell in love with bluegrass rather than rock and roll...
Del McCoury: It's crazy, ain't it? Well, you know, I heard Earl, it must have been 1950 when I heard Earl and I would have been 11 years old. And he just about ruined me for life when I heard Earl Scruggs, you know? But, my brother had already taught me to play guitar, you know? Then he bought this record of Flatt and Scruggs and I don't know, when I heard that, when I heard Earl play, you know, something that I just never heard before. I probably had at a younger age but you have to be a certain age, really, for things to click, I think, you know, in your brain. And, Buddy, he clicked hard in my brain, you know? And then, when I was in high school, all the kids, you know, they were listening to Elvis Presley because he was the biggest thing going then. He had those hot records, you know? But, you know, I was already into banjo and listening to Earl Scruggs and then, of course, I found other guys, you know, that were good, too, like Don Reno, who had a different style completely from Earl, you know? A lot of young ones were coming up, too, at that time like J. D. Crowe and Sonny Osborne, who were in my age group, you know, but they were just a little older than me, like, a year.
Jo Reed: Now this was Pennsylvania.
Del McCoury: It was. I lived in P.A.
Jo Reed: Well, Baltimore's an old stomping ground for you, isn't it?
Del McCoury: It is.
Jo Reed: You used to play in Baltimore.
Del McCoury: A lot. I'll tell you, back in, well, let's see, the late '50s, yeah, the late '50s and early '60s, I played in Baltimore. It was really a good town for bluegrass and I'm not sure why but it really was. The first bluegrass band to play Carnegie Hall was playing a little bar there in Baltimore and they were a good band, Earl Taylor and the Stony Mountain Boys, you know. I didn't go to for Baltimore until I was grown and kind of independent, you know. And it was the biggest city closest to home. Of course, you know, young people, they always want to go to the big city, you know.
Jo Reed: When did you first pick up a banjo?
Del McCoury: Well, let's see now. I would have picked up the banjo...I heard Earl in 1950 and I think it was soon after that when I started playing. My dad, he knew a guy that had one and he borrowed it from this guy, it was an old Vega, an old, cheap one, you know. And that's what I learned to play on. Then, when I got out of high school, I was working and I could buy things. I bought a brand new Gibson, it was an RB-150, they called them. And so I played that and then I traded down in Baltimore. This great banjo player in Baltimore, Walter Hensley, he was the guy I was telling you about, the first one to play Carnegie Hall. This was before Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs or any of them. Those guys played Carnegie Hall and tore the place up, it said, you know? <laughs> They said they were awful nervous. But he had this old Gibson and I went in there one time to the club where he was playing and he wasn't playing this old Gibson. It was a great banjo so I asked him where it was at, I said, "I'd love to have that thing." He said, "You want that thing?" and I said, "Yeah," and so it was in a pawn shop downtown. I took my new banjo in there and traded it for that old one, you know? So I played it until I quit. I played it with Bill Monroe when I first played with him, my first date with him. But, when I quit playing banjo, I started playing guitar and singing lead for him and I never did seriously go back to playing banjo, you know.
Jo Reed: Now, how did you meet Bill Monroe?
Del McCoury: There was a guy that played guitar with Bill and sang lead for about three years or four years. His name is Jack Cook. He just passed away recently. He had played with Bill and quit and moved to Washington, D.C. and then he got his own band and I was one of his first banjo players. Then. Bill Monroe knew Jack was in Baltimore so, on his way to New York City, he stopped there to see if Jack would go with him to play this date because he didn't have a lead singer. So Jack said, "Well, do you have a banjo player?" and he said, "No," and so they took me along with them, you know, and that's how I met Bill Monroe and played banjo and he offered me a job. But then, when I decided to take the job, he said, "You know, I still need a guitar player and a lead singer worse than anything else." He wanted me to try that.
Jo Reed: Was it hard to make the switch from banjo to guitar?
Del McCoury: Well, actually, the first thing I learned to play was guitar when I was real young, like nine. I really never did seriously play guitar after that, you know? But I thought, you know, I know what it's supposed to sound like so I'm going to work at this and the thing that I wondered about was could I play with Bill Monroe guitar, rhythm, because I knew he had great rhythm and I didn't want to mess the band up. I found out it was easy playing with him because he must have had the same timing I did. I didn't have any trouble at all playing with Bill Monroe, you know. He never told me a thing about my guitar playing, never did.
Jo Reed: How important is timing when you're a musician? I mean, I'm sure there are musicians you admire, would love to play with, but it is difficult because timing doesn't always work?
Del McCoury: Yeah, you know, in my opinion, it's the most important thing. I've played with some guys that had bad timing and I cannot play with them. I absolutely cannot play with somebody that has bad timing, you know? If they drag or speed or do both, I just can't play with them so that's it, you know? I found out that I could play with him, you know? But not everybody has really good timing. I think it's something up here that some people have and some people don't.
Jo Reed: Or can it also be not even good or bad but you're on a different wavelength, the timing is just different between two musicians perhaps and it doesn't work?
Del McCoury: That could be, you know? I've heard guys say they play in the middle of the beat, you know? I can't play with somebody that plays in the middle of the beat. I can if they play on top of the beat, you know? I can play with them but, otherwise, I cannot. It's kind of like a drive, you know? Bluegrass has that and it's hard to play with drummers because most drummers will be behind the beat or in the middle of the beat. That's it, I think. Some people have a different timing, you know? Most of your good bluegrass bands play right on top of the beat without speeding, you know? Now, if they start speeding, you'll notice it right away, too. Playing on top of the beat. No matter what speed it is, it can be really fast or it can be slow but on top of the beat is where it's at, you know? I think. It's either there or nothing. <laughs>
Jo Reed: You were with Bill Monroe and you were one of the Blue Grass Boys.
Del McCoury: Yes.
Jo Reed: Did I get this right? Did he invent the term bluegrass?
Del McCoury: Well, I'll tell you what, he was from Kentucky. Somebody gave him that name. He had the Blue Grass Boys, you know, his band was called the Blue Grass Boys but I can remember when they didn't call his music bluegrass. I remember it when they somehow, somebody started calling it bluegrass music, you know. He didn't. He didn't start that himself. By the '60s, they started having bluegrass festivals and that kind of established that name then, you know. It was sometime in the late '50s before they ever called it bluegrass, really.
Jo Reed: Now, how long were you with Bill?
Del McCoury: I was only there a year. I played a year and quit and got married and moved to California.
Jo Reed: When did you record your first album?
Del McCoury: I think I recorded my first album in '67.
Jo Reed: What was that like?
Del McCoury: Well, you know, I had wanted to do that but didn't know how to go about it. I played in Berkeley, California, with Bill in '63. This guy that booked Bill there, his name is Chris Strachwitz and he has Arhoolie Records. He heard me sing with Bill and he told me, "I want to record you," you know and I thought, "Boy, this is great," you know. I'll get my own record and so he did. That helped me get started, too, you know. He was mainly, I think mostly he booked or he recorded Cajun music, but I was the first bluegrass band that he put on his label, you know? I was fortunate. That was my first record. The second one was Rounder. They were just starting their label and they wanted me to record for them. That was my second record then, you know? Then I recorded for a whole bunch of independent labels all through the years.
Jo Reed: But, in the meantime, you also had a day job?
Del McCoury: I did, yeah. I did. I worked a day job until maybe the middle '80s.
Jo Reed: What were you doing?
Del McCoury: Mostly cut timber, working in the woods cutting trees, you know. I did a lot of other things. I worked construction. They were building a nuclear plant.
Jo Reed: That's hard, physical labor.
Del McCoury: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Plus you're raising a family.
Jo Reed: And then you were playing bluegrass.
Del McCoury: It's true, you know. I grew up on a farm so I was always used to, you know, physical work, hard physical work. I think I liked it. I know I did. Cutting timber was the same thing, you know? There's a lot of physical work to that and I was in really good shape then. I could hold notes forever. <laughter> Just hold them out there, which I can't do now. But I did that and, of course, my wife, she did, too, Jean. She'd work, you know. Couldn't hold her down, man. She was just like - she's one of those people, you know, that just go, go, go. She can't sit down, you know?
Jo Reed: So what happened in the mid-'80s that allowed you to just do music? To devote yourself to that?
Del McCoury: I'll tell you, the kids, they were grown and I think they were all through school, yeah, they were. They were all through school by then and so we kind of become independent, me and her, you know. We decided, you know what? Let's go to Nashville because my booking agent was there then and there was a lot of TV in Nashville then. And so we thought, well, we'll go down there and we were in good enough financial shape where could just buy a house. If things didn't work out-- and we'd keep the old house and we still have it. It's still sitting there but we thought, well, if things don't work out, we'll sell the house and go back to P.A. We've got that one still there, you know? So we never did leave though because things just started getting better.
Jo Reed: So that move to Nashville really...
Del McCoury: ...good move.
Jo Reed: ...regenerated your career?
Del McCoury: Yeah, it sure did. Let's see. We had a booking agent when we moved there. When we moved, I knew Ricky Scaggs from when he was about 15, you know? I got to know Ricky. He was really doing well at that time, when I moved down there. He's actually one of the people that kind of persuaded me to move. Ricky wanted me to record for his label. He started his own music label and I was the first one he talked to about recording for it. And I recorded for Ricky's label. I think I recorded two or three records on that label. Well, what happened, we did this Down From the Mountain tour. I had recorded a record with Steve Earle and we did 30 days in here with that tour, you know. Then we went to Europe and did 30 days. While we were on that tour, we got a lot of offers from different record labels, because of that tour, I think, and there was a lot of bluegrass on it. My manager told me that we met with ten different labels in Nashville because of this. They wanted to record us. In the windup, my manager, he said, "have you ever thought about starting your own label because this would be the time." So we talked it over and we thought, well, we'll do that. So that's what we did. I've had my own label since then, you know?
Jo Reed: And your two sons joined the band. When did that happen?
Del McCoury: Oh, my. They joined, Ronnie—well, that's a funny story. Back when he was just a kid, he was probably 12 or 13, I don't know, I played in New York City. They had a show there and Bill Monroe was booked on it and I was booked on it. I went up there and played and Ronnie was on vacation from school, it was that time of the year, you know, like between Christmas and New Year's so he went with me up there. I took him along, he was just a kid, you know? I got up there and Bill Monroe took a liking to him. He'd take his hat off, put it on Ronnie. He put his-- I saw him do this, he put his mandolin in his hands. He said, "Now, there, you play me something." <laughter> So Ronnie didn't know a thing about a mandolin, you know. But he had played violin in school, and that did it. We got back home and I had an old mandolin at home. Then he started playing with it. He played a summer with me, just played rhythm. He never took no breaks or anything. He knew the chords and he could play. His rhythm was good and so I'd just take him along and let him play at the festivals that summer, you know. He played rhythm well. That fall, I had this tour coming up in Europe. It was, like, 30 days, you know, we played just about every day. Anyway, he was asking me and his mom about going on that tour, you know? And I said, "No, you got to stay here and go to school." So he came home from school one day and he said, "Dad, the principal wants to talk to you. I told him you're going to Europe and I want to go with you and he wants to talk to you about that." I thought, well, this won't do no good but I'll go talk to him. We were talking. After awhile, the principal said, "You know, I'm going to let Ronnie go," he said. "He'll learn more on that trip than he would here in school and I won't have him make up his work, either." I thought, "Oh, no, I have to take this kid with me now." <laughter> It's bad enough, you know, going overseas. But we took him along, you know. He learned so fast. Kids learn so fast, especially if they get in a band where there are professionals, you know, that can carry them along, you know? He never let up since then.
Jo Reed: And your other son, Robbie...
Del McCoury: He was...
Jo Reed: ...decided to join the family business, too.
Del McCoury: He sure did, you know. When he was about eight, I think it was, he was trying to play the banjo, you know. I had it laying around. I didn't play it. I never did make him play anything or rehearse or practice or nothing. They just kind of did it on their own. So if I'd hear him doing something and I know, "Now, there's one note you're missing right there" and I'd show him that note. So it wasn't long until he was playing that banjo pretty good and playing with records. They listened to other music, too. They listened to Lynard Skynard and all southern rock bands, you know, in those days.
Jo Reed: Well, it's so funny you should bring that up because that's just where I'm going.
Del McCoury: Oh, really?
Jo Reed: Yes. Del McCoury at Bonnaroo.
Del McCoury: Oh, no kidding. <laughter> Well, I don't know how we got there but we did. At my old age, I've become a rock star. Well, I'll tell you what now. We owe that to Ronnie because Ronnie said, "Now, you know, they've started this Bonnaroo," you know, first year, I think it was. Ronnie told our manager, he said, "Stan, we should be on that show, you know."
Jo Reed: What did your manager say when he said that? <laughter>
Del McCoury: He was just kind of- I think he was kind of what would you say...
Jo Reed: Stunned?
Del McCoury: Yeah, stunned, you're right. <laughter> And, you know, it surprised us. There was a lot of bluegrass fans there, there really was.
Jo Reed: So Ronnie was right?
Del McCoury: Yeah, he was. He's got great instincts.
Jo Reed: Well, you've performed at a concert with Phish, not exactly what you would think of as a likely pairing but one that worked.
Del McCoury: Yeah, it did, you know?. Well, what happened, they did a song of mine on a live record and, after they did that, they called and wondered if we'd come play their festival up there on the lake, in Oswego there, and so we said, "yea, we'd love to," so we went up there and played and, man, I couldn't believe the people. There were 77,000 people, they said, at that one. I got there and Trey, kind of the leader of the band, he said, "What do you think we could sing together?" and I said, "Man, I have no idea." He knew we could sing the one that he recorded, my song, we could do that. He said, "Do you know "Blue and Lonesome?" and, boy, that shocked me and I said, "You mean you know that song?" And that was really hardcore bluegrass, you know? That was back with Bill Monroe and Hank Williams, old Hank, wrote that song and the first to record it was Bill. He'd done his homework. He knew that song and he knew some more hardcore bluegrass songs so we went out there and we could have done a whole show, just the two of us, you know? Doing those kind of things. It surprised me.
Jo Reed: What do you think accounts for the just exploding popularity of bluegrass personified by you in fact?
Del McCoury: Well, you know, I'm not sure. It's always had its plateaus or it'd go up, you know, in popularity and then just stay there for awhile. I know the formation of our International Bluegrass Music Association helped. It gave it a big boost then because we got organized for a change. Now we have a place where everybody can get together, like promoters and record companies and musicians and managers and everything. Before, it seemed like it was just quibbling and all but now they work together.
Jo Reed: There's also, I would think, part of the outreach you do by recording other people, I'm thinking about Richard Thompson's songs.
Del McCoury: Yeah, you never know where you're going to find a good song, you know. There's a story about that song. A friend of mine was in New York City...
Jo Reed: We're talking about "1952 Vincent Black Lightning."
Del McCoury: That's right. The Black Lightning song. Well, he heard this song on the radio and I'd never heard it before. He sent word, he said, "You ought to record that song." It just so happened we were doing a record. He sent a tape of it. So, you know, I said, "I like that story." It's a great story. So we worked it out in the key that would suit me, you know, and all like that and kind of arranged it. But I like that song and, you know, it's funny, I never know what I'm going to like until I hear it. People ask me what I'm looking for, you know, when I record and I don't know until I hear it, you know?
Jo Reed: Tell me, what do you like best about performing.
Del McCoury: Well, you know, I never do have a program so I just do requests when I go out, after I get the band introduced. I let them do one thing that they do, whatever it is, sing or play, and, after that, I like to do some new songs but, after we get everybody introduced, you know, I'll ask for requests and I like to do that because the people, it gives them a chance to be part of the show, I think, if you do their requests, you know? As long as they request something you've recorded, you're okay. If they request somebody else's songs, you're in trouble. <laughter> But they do, you know? I'll just do all request shows most of the time. I try to put a new song in somewhere, you know, I'll slip it in on them.
Jo Reed: Now, the band earned membership in the legendary Grand Ole Opry.
Del McCoury: That's true. 2003.
Jo Reed: That must have been a thrill.
Del McCoury: It was because I'd listened to it since I was just a kid. It was such a big show in my mind, you know? Well, it is a long-running radio show. It really is. It's the longest running, I think.
Jo Reed: When you found out you were a National Heritage Fellow, what went through your mind?
Del McCoury: Wow, that was another highlight of my life, I'll tell you. I thought, you know, I don't know if I deserve that. Really. That's really something, you know? To play the Opry, I thought, you know, I could probably be an Opry member someday, you know? And I probably wasn't near as surprised to become a member of the Opry because it was something I kind of thought I could achieve but being an NEA member, I just never thought I could do that, you know? Or would do that. Would become a recipient, I'll put it that way. I was really excited and, of course, Jean was, too, I'm sure. She didn't show it much but she was. Boy. Everybody in my camp, though, I was just kidding about Jean but my manager, you know, and the booking agent and everybody, the boys, you know, they were all excited for me. It's really a big thing, you know. It really is.
Jo Reed: And so wonderfully deserved, Del.
Del McCoury: Well, thank you.
Jo Reed: My many, many congratulations.
Del McCoury: All right. Yes. Thank you for that.
Jo Reed: It was my pleasure. Thank you.
That was 2010 National Heritage Fellow Del McCoury talking about his fifty year career playing bluegrass music.
You've been listening to Artworks, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpt from "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," from the album Del and the Boys, performed by the Del McCoury Band used courtesy of McCoury Music, Inc.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. Next week, traditional Irish flute music and sprightly conversation with 2010 National Heritage Fellow, Mike Rafferty.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
1952 Vincent Black Lightning (Richard Thompson), BEESWING MUSIC (BMI) ADMINISTERED BY BUG (100%)