Del McCoury and The Travelin’ McCourys: Natural Born Pickers

Jeff Tamarkin on June 7, 2018

There are two things that Del McCoury, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest bluegrass singers and guitarists of all time, didn’t want to do when he was starting out: sing and play guitar. He was content to play the banjo and fade into the background.

“It’s funny how life goes,” says Del, recalling those long-ago days. “Sometimes you do things you don’t want to do. When I quit playing with Bill Monroe, I thought, ‘If I’m gonna get my own band, it’d work better if I do play the guitar because I can hold the rhythm up in the band. And sometimes, there might not be a good tenor singer in the band. Well, I can do that—I’ll just sing the verses and sing tenor on the chorus.’”

Now 79 and more than five decades removed from that life-changing stint with Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys—the band often credited with creating the genre—Del McCoury is the longtime leader of his own namesake band and the inspiration behind one of the country’s most highly anticipated annual music festivals. It’s a family affair: His sons—mandolinist Ronnie, 51, and banjoist Rob, 47—are not only core members of The Del McCoury Band but also co-leaders

of The Travelin’ McCourys, a spinoff that takes bluegrass outside of its comfort zone. Fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram round out both outfits, with guitarist Cody Kilby taking Del’s place in the combo that the brothers affectionately call “The Travelers.” Everyone, of course, sings.

Both The Del McCoury Band and The Travelin’ McCourys will release new albums this spring—on their own McCoury Music label. The title of the former, Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass, is a nod to the elder artist’s solo debut, Del McCoury Sings Bluegrass, released originally on Arhoolie Records and celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The Travelin’ McCourys marks a different kind of milestone: It’s the eight-year-old band’s proper debut album, following Pick, a 2012 collaboration with Keller Williams, and a number of singles and solo/duo releases.

“It feels really good to finally get it out because, in the beginning, for five years or more now, we just bounced around with so many different guitar players,” says Ronnie. “We wrote them all down the other day and there must have been 20 guitar players. We never hired anybody. We just had gigs, but we couldn’t support somebody until just the last two years.”

Kilby, a 14-year veteran of new Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Ricky Skaggs’ band, had actually done some playing with the Travelin’ McCourys back in their infancy, but it wasn’t until 2015, says Ronnie, that they were all on the same page: “He was ready to make a change, and we were ready and able to hire him and keep him employed.”

Even with the personnel issue sorted out, finding time to record presented a challenge. In 2017, The Travelin’ McCourys played upward of 70 gigs, and The Del McCoury Band logged another 75. They cut the two albums over the past couple of years in a hit- and-run manner, whenever the various players were able to grab some studio time. In order to test the waters and put some product out there for their fans, the Travelers released a handful of singles while they pieced the album together.

“With both bands, we stay pretty busy touring,” says Rob. “So we would get in with Dad when we could and just cut one, maybe two, songs and then hang it up for a while and come back. We used the ‘60s model: Release singles and then put them all out in an album.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, there are significant differences between the way The Travelin’ McCourys operate as a unit and how Del works. Del prefers to serve as his own song curator, which might come from deep inside the Americana songbook or contemporary Nashville.

“Hot Wired,” the leadoff track on the Del record, was penned by Grammy-winning singer- songwriter Shawn Camp and features Del’s grandson Heaven McCoury on electric guitar, a rarity on a Del release. Among the other tracks, “Letters Have No Arms” was first made famous by Ernest Tubb in 1949 while “To Make Love Sweeter for You” has been recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis and others. Carlene Carter co- wrote “I Fell in Love,” from a 1990 album of the same name, with Heartbreakers members Benmont Tench and Howie Epstein. Del wrote some tunes himself; Ronnie, who co- produced the new set, brought others to him.

It was Ronnie who convinced his father to record a Tom Petty composition in the late-‘90s, “Love Is a Long Road.” When Ronnie met Petty years later, the songwriter told him that Del’s version was his favorite cover of any of his songs.

For The Travelin’ McCourys, self-penned tunes and well- chosen covers are the name of the game. “I Live on a Battlefield,” co-written by Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack, and John Hartford’s “Natural to Be Gone,” are nestled among songs that Ronnie and Alan Bartram composed.

And then there are two credited to Jerome J. Garcia, a churning take on “Cumberland Blues”—a song born from bluegrass sensibilities if there ever was one—and a muscular, soulful workup of the ‘70s ballad “Loser.” Like so many millions of their generation, Ronnie and Rob were, and remain, Deadheads. Ronnie even played in a Grateful Dead cover band for a while.

But unlike most musicians who clock in time with a Dead tribute act, Ronnie actually got to meet Garcia, one of his musical heroes. The event— backstage at a Dead gig in September 1987, in Landover, Md.—placed three generations of bluegrass mavens in a room together.

“Long story short,” says Ronnie, “I had these banjos that I had picked up, and [mandolin great] David Grisman is an instrument genius. I called him and he said, ‘Hey, Jerry might be interested in these things.’ So I got a call from Jerry and he says, ‘I’ll be at the Capital Centre. Why don’t you come down and bring them?’ I took my dad with me. He hadn’t seen Jerry since [Garcia] was playing in [the bluegrass quintet] Old and in the Way. When I got to the Grateful Dead show, we sat down for about an hour, and Jerry said to Del: ‘The first time I ever saw you was with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in 1963 in Berkeley, Calif.; you were the guitar player.’ Then he turned to me and said, ‘You know, your dad was a big influence on me.’ That was really cool to hear.”

Cumberland also happens to be the name of the largest city on the Potomac River outside of Washington, D.C. Situated in western Maryland and surrounded by lush green mountains, it’s within spitting distance of both Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Since 2008, Cumberland’s Allegany County Fairgrounds has hosted DelFest, a now-annual, family-friendly event that has matured into one of the most reliably pleasurable festivals in the United States offering primarily traditional acoustic music.

This year’s DelFest is set for May 24–27. Naturally, The Del McCoury Band and The Travelin’ McCourys top the bill. The choice lineup also includes such A-list attractions as Skaggs, Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters, Rhiannon Giddens, Richard Thompson, Old Crow Medicine Show and a mind-blowing, once-in-a-lifetime “Bluegrass Congress,” featuring The Del McCoury Band, Skaggs, Grisman, Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton and Stuart Duncan.

DelFest wasn’t Del’s idea initially. His manager, Stan Strickland, suggested putting a music shindig together, and Del quickly nixed it: “I didn’t want the headache,” he says. But when he was shown the location in Maryland, Del fell in love, realizing it was the ideal setting for a music festival. Things took off from there—navigations through political waters and all. The first DelFest, in 2008, featured Vince Gill, David Bromberg, Punch Brothers and many more. The level of artistry presented has never flagged.

Photo by John Patrick Gatta

Del McCoury sometimes marvels at how far he’s come. Born in North Carolina in 1939, Del’s older brother started him on the guitar when he was nine. When he heard Earl Scruggs play the banjo, the boy decided that was what he wanted to do. But he was equally impressed by Lester Flatt’s guitar work and gravitated toward that instrument. Ten years later, he was playing it professionally.

“I got along good with Bill Monroe,” says Del. “A lot of musicians had a hard time with him. He expected you to get out on that stage and work hard with him. I believed in working hard, too.”

Del never considered playing any other style of music. Although Elvis was the king in the ‘50s, rock-and-roll was not a route he had any interest in taking. Once he formed his own groups and began recording, Del soon discovered that he’d made the right decision—he quickly became one of bluegrass music’s reigning stars, taking home dozens of International Bluegrass Music Association Awards since 1990, a Grammy in 2006 (plus five other nominations) and, in 2010, a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts, in the field of folk and traditional arts.

He was even invited to play at the Grand Ole Opry. “That was really fun for me to do,” he says. “I’d heard it since I was a kid. The Opry is actually a country music place but they’ve always been good to bluegrass.”

As the years went on, Del’s boys picked up instruments and soon enough realized that they, too, wanted to play in that style. Ronnie joined Del’s then- current band in 1981, at age 13, and Rob came in six years later. Most folks would balk at working with a parent, but Del and his boys have nothing but mutual respect for one another.

“When I go to his house, he’s got a room where he hangs out and, most of the time, the guitars are out and he’s got CDs out, or he’s sitting there with his headphones on listening to this music,” says Rob. “When we were kids, we’d see that dad was a grown man who was having the best time. Music is his life. He’s still totally into it. I hope I make it there and I’m still into it at that age.”

“Everything’s very natural with him,” adds Ronnie. “My dad never once told me to practice. He always taught by example, and I always saw the joy that he had onstage. For my brother and myself, it’s just kind of infectious.”

“It would be hard for me to replace any of them because they’re so good at what they do,” says Del about all of his band members. “I wouldn’t even think about it—they’re great musicians and great guys. And especially with my boys, we don’t have to rehearse much; we just know what each other is doing.”

It was Del who suggested that Ronnie and Rob start their own band though, so that they’d have an outlet as he gets up there in the years. Ronnie and Rob have both brought their own experiences and modern sensibilities to the music. Just as Del was a second-generation bluegrass artist, the Travelin’ McCourys have not only helped keep the traditions alive but have also suggested where the next generation might take the music. Growing up in Pennsylvania, the boys listened to bluegrass, but they also went out to see concerts by bands like Rush.

Rob and Ronnie have now settled into the routine of shifting seamlessly between their two parallel realities. The Travelin’ McCourys are still a young band, finding their way. Then, when they’re with Del, that means accommodating their dad’s vision. “I’ve had people come up to me that knew my dad before I was born and they’ve said, ‘Your dad’s never changed,’” says Ronnie. “I’m still in shock about how great he is as a musician and a singer. The only thing we try to do is make life as easy and comfortable for him as we can.”

Toward that end, Del’s wife and Ronnie and Rob’s mother, known as Jean—although, “believe it or not, her first name is actually Delma,” says Ronnie—travels with the others, handling the merch table. She also keeps things in check. (“I love driving the tour bus, but my wife made me quit that about 10 years ago,” Del says.) It’s their life, as a family, and one that none of them would ever consider changing.

“One thing that always strikes me as funny, and this happens a lot,” says Rob, “is that sometimes people will come up to us and say, ‘Man, I don’t like bluegrass, but I like you guys.’ One reason that we’ve had that acceptance is because we’ve been very fortunate to play with Phish and the Allman Brothers Band. So we’ll get in front of a crowd that wouldn’t normally come and see us—who don’t even know who we are—but we’re accepted by those bands, which kind of makes us cool. Then they start checking you out. There are people who come up to us all time, and say, ‘I saw you guys play with Phish [at Camp Oswego].’ Years ago, we did a record with Steve Earle and, again, people say to us, ‘I’m a Steve Earle fan, and I saw you guys and I’ve been a fan ever since.’”

Where bluegrass music will go in the future is anyone’s guess. The McCourys all have some thoughts on that. “I think the foundation of it, the acoustic instruments—the banjo, the Dobro, the mandolin, fiddle, guitar and upright bass—that’s not gonna change,” says Ronnie. “The way that people approach the music and their instruments, that’s when the change comes.”

Del adds with a hearty laugh—a trait all three share—“I can remember a time when this music didn’t even have a name! But nowadays, you can say ‘bluegrass’ to just about anybody and they know what you’re talking about.”

This article originally appears in the June 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here