Exclusive Interview: Del McCoury
December 23, 2011
by: Chuck Norton
He’ll be 73 in February 2012. He and his band put out two critically acclaimed albums in 2011. He’s still touring and lining up his next projects. He’s one of the most revered talents in his genre whose appeal extends beyond the bounds of said genre. And, he’s nominated for a Grammy … again.
They don’t make ‘em like Del McCoury anymore.
Steve Earle said – and I’m paraphrasing here – that “bluegrass was the original alternative Country music” and that “a Bluegrass picker plays for the love of the music because there ain’t no way to get rich playing Bluegrass music.”
Although it hasn’t been popular as a mainstream genre since the mid-1900′s, Bluegrass finds its way around the edges of Country, Jazz and Rock for good reason – it’s an artist’s genre. It’s primary instruments are nearly genre-specific. Its sound is distinctive. The vocal styling of traditional Bluegrass is unique and yet strangely ubiquitous.
It was Bill Monroe who was the godfather of Bluegrass with other acts like Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers among the artists who gained stardom in the 1950′s. Now, there aren’t many of the traditional Bluegrass artists left, with octogenarians Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley among the last of the original voices still alive.
Although part of what is considered the second wave of Bluegrass musicians, McCoury is a pillar of traditional bluegrass. But McCoury’s road to legendary status wasn’t a smooth or straight one.
He began playing Bluegrass in the 1950′s – eschewing the music made popular by Elvis for the music made by Earl (Scruggs). He found success as a musician when he joined Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1963. Monroe moved him from banjo to guitar and singer while tutoring him on the finer points of the genre. But the tutelage was short lived.
McCoury, having started a family and looking for more financial stability, took a job to support his family and put music on the back-burner. Living in York, PA., he spent more than a decade being relegated to a weekend warrior, playing festivals and recording when time allowed. During that time he wrote numerous original pieces while also putting his own spin on many classics as he continued to release albums.
His bands had frequent turnover as musicians came and went. His career continued, but never with the success that may have seen likely two decades earlier.
By the mid-1980′s his sons Ronnie and Rob had joined his band and, in 1990, Del McCoury won his first Male Vocalist of the Year award from International Bluegrass Music Association. The McCourys made the decision to moved to Nashville in 1991 feeling it was the best opportunity for the band. That decision – and the subsequent relocation – led to what could only be described as a stratospheric jump in popularity.
During the 1990′s the band and their work found a greater audience. Del McCoury became a favorite recording partner for acts ranging from Vince Gill and Allison Krause to Phish and Steve Earle. With each year came more awards and by the end of the decade Del McCoury became a standard barer for traditional Bluegrass.
A Grammy Award winner in 2007, he is also three-time nominee – including this year. He’s 31-time International Bluegrass Music Association award winner – including a nine-time winner of Entertainer of the Year. In addition to his own awards, his band members have also won numerous awards for their musicianship, making the Del McCoury Band one of the most decorated, award-winning band of any genre.
In 2011, the Del McCoury Band released two albums – American Legacies with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band – and Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe which garnered the band’s latest Grammy nomination.
His appeal to artists of other genres continues to grow to this day. He’s a favorite of artists as wide-ranging as Bjork and David Byrne in part because of his open-mindedness to both the music and venues of other genres.
Needless-to-say, the man’s a living legend.
I had a chance to catch up with Del McCoury a couple of weeks ago and talk to him about a wide range of topics including his most recently album, his career and family. I think you’ll find him warm and openly honest. To say it was a privilege have the opportunity to interview McCoury would be an understatement.
DeadJournalist.com is proud to bring you this exclusive interview with Del McCoury.
First and foremost, congratulations on another Grammy nomination, this time for Old Memories. While you’ve had a long-line of award nominations and wins, is it still a special feeling when you find out about them?
DM: It really is. It’s such an exclusive thing to be nominated for a Grammy with all of the bands that are out there working hard and putting out great music. I feel really fortunate.
I read that you thought of the idea for Old Memories on a flight back from the Grammy’s a few years ago. With so much work of Bill Monroe’s to choose from, how did decide on which tracks of his to record?
DM: I started a list of songs on that flight home that really got me thinking. There were different reasons for the selections, but mostly I picked songs that were more obscure – some that even Monroe never played a lot.
Are there any of his songs on the album that have significant meaning to you?
DM: “The Lonesome Truck Drivers Blues” probably had more meaning than any of them. My brother had that record when I was a kid and that was some of the earliest music I heard. Later on I became a truck driver, so it did have significant meaning to me. Also “In Despair”, “Live and Let Live”, and “I’m Lonesome, I’m Blue” are three that I sang in the show with him almost every night, so I definitely wanted to do those.
Given your relationship with him – both personally and professionally – how special is it to be able to celebrate is life and his work with this album?
DM: It’s very special. I wanted to record the songs as close to the way he did it, in the same key, and with the same instrumental breaks. It’s been almost fifty years now since I started performing these songs, and they are all still great songs.
Between Old Memories and the American Legacies album you released with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band earlier this year, you seem to be getting more prolific with each year. What are the your and the band’s plans for 2012?
DM: We’re going to continue to tour, and we’ve got a lot more dates with Preservation Hall. I’ve just started working on ideas for the next album, so I’m sure we’ll hit the studio soon.
When you are looking for a new project, what is it that excites and motivates you? Is writing new material something that is important to you, personally?
DM: When I first start thinking about a new project, I always dread it a little bit, because it’s always such a big undertaking that it’s almost overwhelming. However, as soon as I find a couple of songs that excite me, and things start rolling, then I really enjoy it. I’ve always enjoyed recording, and having something new to share with the fans.
As for writing songs, I started writing out of necessity. Used to, it was hard to come up with new material, so I’d just write it myself. Now, there are so many great songwriters out there, I’ve gotten a little lazy and don’t write nearly as much as I used to. I spend a lot of time listening to songs that other people have written.
As a performer, how have your shows changed over the years? At its core, is the show you try to give an audience the same now as it was earlier in your career?
DM: At the core, the show is the same. The big difference is we have such a large catalog of songs, and the band can play everything so well, that we can handle just about any request that the audience throws at us – as long as I can remember the words. That’s probably the biggest difference, but the main goal each night is just to give the audience what they want because they are the ones that bought the tickets that allowed us to be there.
Having worked with a litany of musicians across many genres over the years, has there been anyone in particular that you’ve found to have a kindred spirit to yours when it comes to their passion for music – and traditional bluegrass in-particular?
DM: After all the folks that I’ve met over the years, Bill Monroe is still the one that immediately comes to mind. His love for the music, and his ability to do it so well has always been my standard for excellence, and I’ve never met another musician who I connected with as much musically.
It seems many of the younger generation of bluegrass musicians are playing “newgrass” over the traditional bluegrass sound. Do you think that the sound championed by Monroe, Flat and Scruggs, etc. can even be replicated today, given vast amount of musical influences most newer artists have?
DM: I don’t think we’ll ever hear a young band play traditional bluegrass Monroe invented it. Most of the young musicians aren’t influenced a lot by Monroe, Scruggs, etc. They are influenced by second and third generation Bluegrassers whose sound has evolved, so unless you find a young group of musicians who are willing to go back to the source, there are going to be some differences.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some young folks playing today that can play that stuff, and do in jam sessions and stuff, but when they sit down to create their own music, other influences are going to alter their course some.
What are the biggest challenges for you – both as a performer and personally – for being on the road?
DM: The biggest challenge is my voice. I’m always worried about it being there … for the most part it’s never really let me down. I still think about it, because the older I get the older my voice gets. So taking care of it on a daily basis and making sure it’s warmed up and ready to go each night is the biggest challenge.
Thankfully so far I haven’t had any real problems.
I’m sure you get asked this a fair amount, but how special is it for you to have your sons not only perform with you but to able to spend some much time with them while touring? Do you think it helped strengthen your relationship with them?
DM: It’s really special that we get to spend so much time with the boys. My wife, Jean, goes on the road with us and handles the merch and whatever else we might need, and she and I have talked many times about how lucky we are to be able to do this with family. Now Jason and Alan are almost like sons, so it really is one big family on the road.
I also feel fortunate that Rob and Ronnie are such great musicians that I can have my cake and eat it to … my family and world class musicians all rolled into one.
It’s probably what has allowed me to maintain such a busy road schedule year after year.
What is the best advice you’ve received from a fellow performer that left a lasting impact with you?
DM: It wasn’t necessarily advice, but what I think was the biggest influence on my career was watching Bill Monroe. He worked really hard, and I realized that to have a music career was going to be really hard work, but if I stayed after it, I would have a chance at success.
As for advice, Ricky Skaggs and his wife Sharon encouraged us to move to Nashville around 1990, and we soon did. The nudge from them was what it took, and that was a big step for the band and the success we’ve had. I’ll always be grateful to Ricky and Sharon for that.
What advice would you give someone setting their sights on being a musician?
DM: First and foremost, make sure that’s what you really want to do. If you are intent on becoming a musician, don’t give up. A lot of people think they want to be musicians, but you’ve got to really have the “want to” to put in the work it takes. Only a few people make it into the limelight, there are thousands more that just love being a musician in whatever capacity that might be.
Is there an artist that you’ve encountered that you’ve been impressed by recently?
DM: The guy that I’ve enjoyed watching over the half dozen years or so is Dierks Bentley. We met Dierks a long time before he became a professional musician, and to see him set his sights on what he wanted, and work his butt off to become a good musician and singer, and turn that into a successful career has been impressive.
I know how hard it is to achieve success in music, and he deserves everything he’s earned. My boys went on the road with him last year and they were impressed with how hard he worked. That’s what it takes in this business, and I have a lot of respect for anyone that can stay the course and reach their goals.
Along the way Dierks has also stayed true to the music he loves by including Bluegrass on his albums and taking a chance by taking the boys on the road with him for an acoustic tour.
Those things say a lot about a person.
With the holidays fast approaching, what are you plans? Do you have any traditions that you try to maintain year-in-and-year-out?
DM: We still have our old farmhouse near York, PA so we’ll go home this year for a week or so. Now traditions are hard to maintain. With all the kids going different directions with their families, we just find a time that we can all get together whenever that might be some time between Christmas Eve and New Year’s.
What is your favorite meal?
DM: My wife is a great cook, so it’s hard to choose, but I really like breakfast, so I’d have to say her sausage and gravy is probably my favorite (I hope my doctor doesn’t read this).
Who is the artist or musician that you love to listen to when you have some time to yourself?
DM: The best band is still when Flatt and Scruggs were in Bill’s band. I don’t listen to a lot of the new music on the street … when I have time to listen and I’m not listening for songs for a new project, I tend to go back and listen to Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and some of the other great traditional bluegrass.
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