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Our Kind Of Bluegrass
The Del McCoury Band Interview
After being originally hired on as a banjo player, Del McCoury quickly switched to playing guitar and providing lead vocals for Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in 1963 before moving on to California as a member of the Golden State Boys in 1964. Even with his gifted notoriety, McCoury still found himself taking on day jobs, such as construction and logging, to support himself through the lean times. After fifty years in the music business, McCoury's rise to fame would not be described as meteoric, but it is stellar nonetheless.
After playing strictly bluegrass for many years, McCoury found his sound yearning to branch out into other genres. To these ends, he has had some of the most unique collaborations, ranging from singing backup harmony on Alison Krauss and Robert Plant's critically acclaimed album, Raising Sand, to performing alongside Phish, Donna the Buffalo and the String Cheese Incident. The group he has formed with his two sons, Rob and Ronnie, is just as eclectic. During a recent interview, I asked whether this album happened more organically than others.
“Yeah, probably so. You know, it's probably different a different album for me. I just had these songs that I started listening to before we started recording. I started listening and I just found songs that I liked to do, you know?” McCoury said. “After we got about halfway through, I said, 'You know...there's no harmony on this stuff. These boys probably think I'm trying to get rid of them!' (Laughs) But in the wind up, I found a few that we could do some harmony on.”
One of the songs that was found to bridge the gap had an interesting story about its inclusion onto the album; Hello Lonely.
“Yeah! Hello Lonely was one. The funny thing about that was...you want me to tell you a story about that song?” Del said, before launching into the story behind the song. “Like I said, we were recording and there was a CD on the counter at my house here and it didn't have a name on it...it didn't have anything...it was just a CD in a pack. So I thought, 'You know, I should probably listen to this and see what this is.' I do a lot of things that people send me. There are a lot of writers downtown here (Nashville) and gosh, when they find out you're going to record, they give you all kinds of things. So I thought, 'I'll listen to this and just see who it is.' It was real slow and I told the boys that I liked the song, because I could hear it uptempo and it would be good for harmony, which is something we were needing right about then, so I took it to the studio that morning and I got it out and I sang it to Ronny. I said, 'You know, I think this song would be good for us uptempo and do it in a trio.' So, we were singing it, trying to work on it a little bit, and Jason (the fiddle player) walked in and said, 'Oh! That's my buddy! I went to school with that guy that wrote that song!' (Laughs) I said, 'Really? So that's it, huh?' I still don't know how I got the CD, but it was Jason's buddy, you know, so that worked out real great.”
Along with unlikely collaborations, The Del McCoury Band has found itself performing in some equally unlikely venues, such as Bonnaroo. McCoury recounted the first time that they had played the alternative festival.
“We didn't know what to expect there the first time we played there. We were the first bluegrass band to play there, you know. We had been out in California and we had to bus down there that day and I thought, 'Oh, this is just going to be miserable. We won't be able to get in and I bet the traffic's terrible.' Anyway, we got down there and, man, there's no traffic...nothin'! We pulled right into Holiday Inn, which is where you register, so I thought, 'Wow! There must not be anybody here.' What it was, everybody came on Wednesday and Thursday, so that's when the traffic was bad. It's funny because we pulled the bus up (to the tent) when it come time for the show and there was nobody under the tent. So, we tuned up and walked up onto the stage and then there (were) a few people under the tent already. Buddy, when we got done with that show, you couldn't see the end of it out from under that tent. There were people in every direction. It was so noisy that when I'd ask for a request, I couldn't hear and they were just all hollerin', you know. So, they just started holding up signs with requests...some of them were songs we did from thirty years ago! Luckily, I did know some of them...yet some I didn't. (laughs) So that was my first experience with Bonnaroo, and of course we've played every other year since then.”
The Changing Face Of Music
I told McCoury about a video I had stumbled upon from the event. It was a poor quality video that someone had shot with their cell phone and you couldn't even hear the band, but what amazed me about it was that you could hear the crowd singing every note of the song being performed. I asked McCoury if it ever surprised him the depth of influence that bluegrass has had on other genres on music.
“Yeah, yeah! And, you know, we had a lot of influence on the 'jam' bands. There's some things that you don't realize when you're coming up in the business, but a lot of the 'jam' bands, like Phish and Leftover Salmon and all those guys, they came to my shows before they had a band and when they got a band and got popular, then they were wanting us to play their festivals, so we had a big influence on that style of music.”
As our conversation wound around the many facets of his career, McCoury spoke at length about the changing face of his audiences over the years.
“You know, I've noticed a lot of the young people today, I think more so today than ever...” McCoury began, interrupting himself to go back to the beginning. “...I remember playing my first bluegrass festival, like in the middle sixties, and at that time, Carlton Haney, he had the first one in Fincastle, Virginia, which is right outside of Roanoke. He was drawing people out of New York City...there were a lot of fans but there was no place for them to go until then and, boy, it just broke everything wide open. Now those guys, a lot of those guys that came to the festivals back in the middle sixties, they were strictly bluegrass fans, you know, but I've noticed that the fans today, a lot of the young people that come to our shows, they listen to all types of music and they're really educated as to what it's all about. I think that part of that is the communication. You can do something today and it's on the Internet in two minutes.”
Further along in our interview, McCoury reflected on one of the things that he attributes his success to;
“You know, I like variety in music and everything, so it's always been good to me. I know, when I started recording, I did pretty strictly bluegrass stuff and as the years went by, I'd hear all these other songs that I liked and I could tell....every once in a while, somebody would say, 'Well, you're going to record that song? I don't think that's bluegrass.' I'd tell them, I'd say, 'Well, a good song is a good song, no matter what it is.'” McCoury ended, summing up his in a short sentence. “It's done good for me though, to add a little variety in our music.”
Three Part Harmony
An example of some of the ‘variety’ that Del spoke of can be found in the unique project that he was called in on, which was the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant collaboration, Raising Sand, which was released to critical and public acclaim and garnered them a Grammy. Del reflects on his role on the album.
“I'll tell you what, I played on one song. T-Bone (Burnett) called me and wanted me to come down and sing harmony with them. So I went down and I sang a part between Plant and Alison on the song, but it's the only song on there that has three part (harmony) on the album. I remember listening to the album after they sent me a copy and I could tell that it was the only one that had three part harmony on it. Del paused and then said, “I'll tell you a little story about it. You know, the bass player on there is Tim Crouch and he had played with me before and he went on the road with me and he's good friends with all the boys here. (laughs) So, he said that after I left Robert (Plant) said to T-Bone (Burnett), 'Just what was it that Mr. McCoury was singing?' Evidently...and this is the funny thing, and I never knew this...but with the band that Robert had played with all those years (Led Zeppelin), he just sang all solos and didn't know a thing about harmony! He never knew anything about harmony parts or anything like that. So T-Bone said, ‘Well, he's actually singing tenor with you and Alison is singing a high baritone' and he said, 'Oh!' Now he's all enthused about three part singing! I played out in San Francisco at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, and Robert came to my tent and he's talking about this harmony thing and he's all fired up about it now (laughs).”
It seems like when people in the United States get insecure, be it with the economy, the government, whatever, they seem to go back to the roots. In recent years, there has been a really huge resurgence in Americana, bluegrass and Celtic music and it seems that these types of music speak more directly to people. It just seems that bluegrass speaks to something within the American spirit.
“ I think so. I think you're right about that. You know, I've noticed that with a lot of the young people today...I think more so today than ever. I remember playing my first bluegrass festival, like in the middle sixties, and at that time, Carlton Haney…he was drawing people out of New York City...there were a lot of fans but there was no place for them to go until then and, boy, it just broke everything wide open. But I've noticed that the fans today...now those guys, a lot of those guys that came to the festivals back in the middle sixties, they were strictly bluegrass fans, you know. They liked Bill Monroe and whoever, but these days, a lot of the young people that come to our shows, they listen to all types of music and they're really educated as to what it's all about and who does what. I think that part of that is the communications. You can do something today and it's on the Internet in two minutes.” Del ended his thought by answering the question from his heart. “I think it reaches down deep in them, you know? They can probably feel it. It's part of their heritage.”