Del McCoury: To Abide and Thrive

Dean Budnick on March 4, 2022
Del McCoury: To Abide and Thrive

photo credit: Jeff Fasano


“The way he plays and sings just blows me out of the water,” 54 year-old Ronnie McCoury says of his father, Del, who turned 83 on Feb. 1. “He amazes me, and he amazes Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs and an entire generation of musicians who want to be able to do what he does at that age.”

Ronnie, who began contributing mandolin and vocals to his father’s shows as a teenager, adds, “When my dad sings certain songs that have harmony, he sings the lead for the verses and then moves from that to the tenor part and it’s still perfectly there. That’s a hard feat. A lot of great singers are known just for that solo lead part, but his thing is that he’ll do that and then go up to the tenor part, which is not easy. People like Jerry Douglas and Béla Fleck can’t get over how he can still do it that strong.”

For over 60 years, Del McCoury has not only been doing it adroitly, he has also been doing it steadily. After starting out on banjo and later moving to acoustic guitar at the behest of Bill Monroe, who welcomed McCoury into his Blue Grass Boys at age 24, he has long been connecting with audiences on a regular basis

That all changed in the spring of 2020, due to the deleterious presence of COVID-19. On March 9, the Del McCoury Band—which also features his son Rob McCoury (banjo), along with Jason Carter (fiddle, vocals) and Alan Bartram (bass)— appeared at the Grand Ole Opry. Within days, that hallowed Nashville institution and thousands of music venues across the globe suspended all live performances.

“The pandemic brought death and heartache to so many households; it was just terrible,” Ronnie observes. “But there was also this devastating isolation. In our case, nobody wanted to give anything to my dad or mom. Everybody was worried, so we kept our distance. Besides that, the really hard thing for me to see was how my dad, at his age, could not do what he loved to do. It robbed him and other performers of a year that they can never get back. I was really worried how my dad might deal with that.”

As it turned out, Del McCoury dealt with it the same way that he has approached life in general—he went to work. For over a decade, he had been accumulating potential songs that various people had passed along to him. So following the initial shock and upheaval generated by COVID, he began sorting through the hundreds of tracks he had on hand.

Del, whose upbeat nature is one of his defining characteristics—along with his preternatural, age-defying musical prowess—kept his eyes on the horizon as he identified which of these tunes would be suitable to perform and record.

“I had a box where I’d throw these demos in,” Del remarks. “I couldn’t give them all that much time before the pandemic—every once in a great while, I might listen to something. But that’s what I began to do. Eventually, I found my way to about 25 songs I liked. With each of them, I would take out my guitar and find a key I could sing them in. Then, I put them down on a little cassette tape, so I wouldn’t forget them. These were the ones that we eventually brought to the studio. I ended up feeling so inspired while I was doing all this stuff that I wrote a couple songs too.”

“When I found out what he had been doing, it might have surprised me for about a minute,” Ronnie says with a laugh. “But my father worked hard from a young age, and I think that’s part of why he’s still so active. He was raised on a farm where he’d get up early to milk the cows. When I was growing up, into my teens, he was a logger—which is something that a lot of people in his family did. He would go into the woods in the morning when the sun came up. Often, the big machinery was so cold that it wouldn’t start because the oil was too thick. So they had to build fires underneath to thin out the oil enough to start the engine. Over the years, he’s continued to tell me how much he misses the physical exertion.”

Ronnie and his brother Rob, who is four years younger, not only came to appreciate their father’s work ethic, but they also saw another side of him.

“What I noticed is, even though he would come home all worn out, when he was playing with the band onstage, it was happy times,” Ronnie recalls. “He and my mother both worked hard but, when he was performing, you could see the joy in his face. I think that’s why my brother and I both gravitated to it as well.”

The McCourys lived in rural Pennsylvania where Del balanced his logging efforts with his musical career, leading a band called the Dixie Pals, which each of his sons eventually joined while in high school.

Although Del’s day job limited his ability to travel for gigs, at times the McCourys brought the shows to them.

Ronnie explains, “Starting when I was nine or 10, he and my mother would put on shows at either the high school or a Legion hall. My mother would do the cooking and my dad would open the shows. He had Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass with Marty Stuart in the band—Marty was the first kid I saw playing this music, and that pulled me deeper into it. My dad also did a show or two where Bill Monroe was the headliner. Bill and the band came to the house to eat, spend a little time and then go to the show. Being surrounded by all that made it easier for my brother and me to fall in it.”

It became even easier in 1992 when the McCourys moved to Nashville, cementing a full-on commitment to music. Following the addition of 19-year-old fiddle player Jason Carter, the newly christened Del McCoury Band featured 4/5 of the current lineup, which bass player Alan Batram completed when he joined in 2005.

By the fall of 2020, the group’s longtime roster was eager to enter the studio to record the material that Del had selected over the prior months. They eventually captured nearly 30 songs, 12 of which appear on the new album Almost Proud.

Ronnie shared production duties with his father. As Del observes, “Once I get a song in the key and tempo that suit me, I’m ready. Then, when we’re in the studio, Ronnie is good about saying what instrument should take this part of the song and who should kick it off. We used to do a lot of preproduction, but, nowadays, we just go in the studio and do it in there. Twenty years ago, we used to rehearse everything before we got in there but I don’t like to waste time.”

“I’m not one to tell him: ‘This song’s great, you need to do it.’” Ronnie adds. “I might suggest some songs but whatever he wants to record, he records.”

When it comes to Almost Proud, the material spans the elder McCoury’s career. He initially heard Lester Flatt sing “Rainbow of My Dreams” in the 1940s. By contrast, “Other Shore” from The California Honeydrops’ 2013 record Like You Mean It! came out of Del’s box of potential tunes.

“Dad really was into The California Honeydrops CD,” Ronnie affirms. “We cut two songs off of there, although only one is on this record. He kept saying, ‘That guy can really sing.’ It was a little surprising that he pulled those songs but I’m glad he did. Once again, CDs are handed to us or I’ll find something and send it along, but I never know what he’s gonna like.” Another piece of music that Ronnie forwarded was an unfinished Del McCoury song that surfaced on a cassette. “I found this thing dad had worked on 20 years ago. It was a verse and a chorus, and he had forgotten about it. I don’t think the demo was called ‘Running Wild’ but I got it to him and he totally rewrote that one. It was really neat to see that come to life.”

As for the other original, “The Misery You’ve Earned,” Ronnie reveals, “I never even heard that one until we got in the studio. That’s because we didn’t really get together and work up a lot of stuff. It’s got a really great melody, and it shows how good he is at writing because, as far as I know, he’s never had any heartbreak.”

What Del McCoury has had is a life well-lived. Almost Proud reflects the abiding efforts of a good-natured, industrious family man, unencumbered by the trappings of fame. This is how, on the title track, the double-Grammy-winning Grand Ole Opry member and bluegrass torchbearer, who shares nine IBMA Entertainer of the Year trophies with his band, can sing without irony: “When I think of where I came from and all I’ve been allowed/ It makes me for a moment almost proud.”


Almost Proud not only includes some new material, but it also draws on the music of your youth with “Rainbow of My Dreams.” Can you recall the first song or album you heard that set you down your current path?

When I first started out, what got me interested in music was Earl Scruggs. My brother, who was nine years older than me, taught me to play the guitar when I was about nine years old. He was a singer, but I wasn’t even thinking about music until I heard Earl Scruggs. He had bought this record where Earl Scruggs was playing on it, and that got me interested in playing. But as for playing professionally or playing in front of people, I didn’t even think about that. I just wanted to see if I could do what Earl was doing. It was a challenge, and a lot of us, like Sonny Osborne and J. D. Crowe, all went through the same things back in those days.

Once I learned to play and people saw that I could play, they talked me into going into bands with them. Then, they’d say, “Now you gotta sing a part” and they’d find out what my range was. Mostly mine was tenor, but I also had to sing lead. It’s funny, from the start I knew the parts. I didn’t really have to rehearse them that much. I knew lead, baritone, tenor and bass. I somehow knew the notes and then, every band I was in, someone kind of dragged me into singing. [Laughs.]

Did you know you could sing before you wanted to play or were those interrelated?

It was at a time in my life where I was thinking about singing and playing all at the same time. It’s funny, I never had any problem singing. The rehearsing I had to do was with that banjo. Man, that took a lot of work, but it was fun, and I just kind of accidentally got to go with Bill Monroe. I wasn’t looking to do that, but he needed a banjo player, and I was there. [Laughs.]

Bill Monroe moved you from banjo to guitar. What was his thought process?

You got me, man. It was nuts. [Laughs.] No, I’ll tell you what happened. I was playing banjo with Jack Cooke. He had been a Blue Grass Boy in the late ‘50s. Then, he quit and moved to Baltimore. He was a great guitar player and a singer, and I got a job playing banjo with him.

Then one day, Bill Monroe came through Baltimore in the winter, and he needed Jack to go to New York City to play Town Hall because he didn’t have a guitar player—whoever was with him had quit. Jack agreed, then he asked Bill if he had a banjo player. He didn’t, so they took me along. Just like that, at the snap of a finger, I went to New York City with Bill Monroe.

I figured we’d rehearse the whole show but what happened was: We got there, tuned up and went out onstage. There was no rehearsal at all. But Jack knew his stuff so Bill wasn’t worried about rehearsing. He didn’t know about the banjo playing, but at least the singing would be good. [Laughs.]

But I knew enough of his stuff to get through it, and Bill offered me a job that night. I turned him down, though, because I liked playing with Jack. We were more of the same age and Bill was an old man at that time—he was 52 years old. [Laughs.] But Bill gave me his number just in case I would take a notion to come down to Nashville.

Then, this other friend of mine convinced me to do it. He said, “Some guys would kill for that job. He’s on Decca Records. He’s got the Grand Ole Opry and all this stuff.” Now, I knew all that but my friend did some fine convincing, and he offered to drive me down there in his car. So that’s how I wound up working for Bill Monroe.

But what happened was: He told me to get a room at the Clarkston Hotel. Then, the next morning, I took my banjo, went down into the lobby to wait for him and, as soon as I walked into the lobby, another banjo picker walked into the lobby with a banjo. I didn’t even have time to talk to the guy; I had no idea why he was there.

Then, Bill walked in—he’s kind of a guy who doesn’t have much to say—pointed at both of us and said, “Come on, boys, follow me.” So we followed him into this restaurant that was connected to the hotel and had breakfast. I still didn’t get introduced to this guy.

After breakfast, we walked next door to the National Life and Accident Insurance Building. They sponsored the Grand Ole Opry and they’d have the Friday Night Opry in that building instead of the Ryman Auditorium where they had the Saturday Night Opry.

Bill brought us into a room and he tried us both out on banjo, guitar and singing. Then, he decided that he wanted me to play the guitar and sing, and he wanted the other guy to play the banjo. I didn’t learn the other guy’s name until later, but it was Bill Keith and he’s a great banjo player. I was good but I was just kind of imitating Earl Scruggs with the forward roll and backward roll and all that stuff. But Bill Keith had a style of his own.

My problem was having to learn the lead to all those songs Bill had recorded. Thankfully, they had a library in that building with records of all the Opry acts. There were old 78 rpm records and you couldn’t take them out, but I’d go up there with a notepad and a pencil and I’d play something that Bill wanted me to learn. That’s how I learned the words. The only additional complication was that he had a new record coming out and I had to learn everything on that record. [Laughs.]

Thinking of the material on Almost Proud, does the same thing still draw you to a song as it did at the outset of your career?

It’s changed. In the very beginning, I was thinking of banjo and the only reason I liked a song was because it had banjo on it. I used to think, “That guy who’s singing, he’s not important. The guy that’s important in that band is the banjo player.” [Laughs.]

Then, later on—once I started singing and Bill Monroe depended on me for the lead—I began listening to songs and singers more. I listened a lot to Lester Flatt because Bill was still doing some of the songs that he’d recorded with Lester Flatt. I’d also listen to Jimmy Martin. It was mainly those two guys, the things that they sang with him and their guitar style, which was mostly rhythm and runs; they didn’t play any leads.

The first guy I really listened to play lead was Don Reno with a flat pick. Doc Watson said that Don Reno was a big influence on him, which is not what you might expect. But he was really good with a flat pick. Earl played guitar, but he played with finger picks on those gospel tunes. So the first lead guitar player I really took notice of was Don Reno.

I never got into playing lead though because I always felt that I had to keep the rhythm going. When I had my very first band, it was even more important because usually the musicians were a little weaker than the professionals and I thought if I quit playing rhythm and started playing leads, the band is going to fall apart. So I just stayed with that rhythm and made runs at the end of the lines and did stuff that would keep the band together.

You wrote two songs on your new album. Has your approach to songwriting changed over the years?

I never would classify myself as a songwriter—I’ve always written because I had to. When I do a record, I think, “I’ve got to have at least a song or two to go with all the other stuff.” So I sit down and, eventually, I come up with something— either a melody or a line to start and then I work with it.

For a while, after I moved to Nashville, my manager tried to get me to write with other people. He said, “There are people that would like to write with you.” So I did a fair amount of that and put those songs on my records.

I remember this one time, I went to Harley Allen’s house to write a few with him. He was a songwriter and a great singer. We were sitting there and we talked for a while because I knew his dad real well—Red Allen, who was a great entertainer. After we finished talking about old times, he said, “Well, do you have anything in mind?” I said, “No, my mind is as blank as this paper I’ve got right here.” [Laughs.]

Then, he swiveled around in his chair. He had some kind of a desk behind him and he pulled open this drawer and he had something written on a piece of paper. He said, “Well, let’s start with this.” Now that’s what I call a songwriter. In other words, he’s thinking about songwriting every day of his life.

It’s hard work to write something that you’re satisfied with. One time, I was getting ready to do a record and I had written this song, “I Feel the Blues Movin’ In.” I thought I needed it for the record, but I never did get it right to suit myself. So I didn’t put it on that record and then, for the next one, I decided to work with it a little bit more to get it where I like it. That took me a little while but, eventually, I got it, put it on that record and, lo and behold, Dolly Parton liked it and she put it on her record. So it can take some time for me to get where I like something. I try to trust my instincts.

When you’re recording new songs for an album, are you doing that with the live show in mind, solely for the sake of the album or a bit of both?

There’s nothing like live, so I’m probably mostly thinking about that, but it’s both. Although, when I put out a record I never do all the songs that are on that record because it’s just too much with my regular show.

I’ll start the show by introducing everybody in the band one at a time. I’ll get Jason to play a fiddle tune, I’ll get Ronnie to play a mandolin tune and sing a solo and continue that way until I get the four guys introduced.

Then from that time on, I ask for requests from the audience. Fortunately, they do request my songs. I tell them: “If you start requesting other people’s songs, then I’m in deep trouble.” [Laughs.] Then, I try to put something new in the show because you can’t do all the requests either.

I like variety in a show. I always remember going to see a band one time when I was really young, and every song they did sounded alike. So I thought, “Now what are they doing that makes them sound the same the whole time?” Then, I realized they were singing in the key of A, and never got out of it. Also, all the songs were the same speed.

So in my show, we have different tempos, different moods and different keys because, otherwise, everything starts to sound alike. If we do a request from the audience and it’s a really fast song or maybe two fast ones in a row, then my brain starts thinking, “What can we do that’s slow?” That’s how I arrange my shows in the spur of the moment, because I think it keeps people more interested.

What was it like for you to return to the stage after so much time off during quarantine? Did you do any vocal exercises or rehearsals during lockdown to keep your chops up?

The whole situation was kind of a shock. It was hard not being out there in touch with the audience. But what kept me going was working on songs. So I stayed with that; although, it’s nothing like working onstage with a band.

I would sing and put some stuff on tape, but you don’t put out as much as when you get onstage. That’s where you’re usually putting it out full force with the vocal parts. I kind of got away from that just sitting there in my studio doing all that taping. But no, I didn’t rehearse.

It was spring when the pandemic hit and, by that fall, our booking agent was starting to catch up and booked all these outside shows where the audience was separated into these cubicles. We did quite a few of those from fall right up into December. We even had some in the middle of the winter in Louisiana and Texas, but they got canceled because it was just a little too cold for it.

I was a little nervous on those first shows. That fall, when we did start playing, I had been away from it all for a while. When you get back onstage, you think, “What am I doing here now?” But it didn’t take us long to get back into it. It’s funny, it really is like riding a bicycle and you never forget how—you just get out of practice on your playing and your singing.

Ever since 2008, you’ve been hosting DelFest at the Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Md. After two years of postponements, it looks like you’ll be back in 2022. What has that event meant to you over the years? To what extent is DelFest akin to Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Festival?

It’s somewhat similar, although Bill mainly had bluegrass music. Of course, he probably had to because he’s the father of bluegrass. [Laughs.] Ours isn’t strictly a bluegrass festival. We also have jamband music and lots of different things.

It’s been wonderful, though. We have an academy up there, and Rob’s wife runs it. They teach everything—banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, bass—and there are usually enough students where they have at least two teachers on each instrument who are people playing the festival. They start on Sunday and go up until Wednesday night. Then, we have music on both stages from Thursday through Sunday.

My manager was the one who asked me in the very beginning if I’d ever thought about having a festival. It seemed like a lot to take on at first, but we have some great people working with us. I remember, in the beginning, when we went out looking for a spot and found that place up in Cumberland. As soon as I walked around, I said, “I like this place better than anything else we’re going to look at. We’re not going to beat this one as far as the location.” So that’s how we arrived at the Fairgrounds.

The festival has really been good for all of us. I guess people look up to me because the festival’s under my name. I’m appreciative, but I think to myself: “Why are they looking up to me?” The thing is, I’m still learning. You never quit learning.