IBMA SERIES: Del McCoury
Bill Monroe is known as “The Father of Bluegrass,” and when he pulled a 24 year-old Del McCoury up to the big leagues in 1963, he was anointing the man who would take bluegrass into the next century. That’s why some refer to McCoury as the “living connection”. Now, 56 years later, 80 year old McCoury is still extending the lineage, and passing on the traditions. Not only to his two sons, who have a Grammy-winning band of their own, but to the world as a whole. McCoury’s role in preserving and furthering the bluegrass genre can not be overstated. Bluegrass wouldn't be where it is today if it weren't for McCoury.
As if McCoury’s pedigree and lengthy career weren’t impressive enough, the fact that he has won 31 IBMA Awards over the past 29 years, two Grammys, and the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation's Blue Star Award further paints the picture. It’s undeniable that Del McCoury is an American musical treasure. But when you take a good look at his story, and his timeline, it’s clear that above all else, he is a hard-working family man.
Del McCoury has a road-warrior tour schedule, and his festival Del Fest is in its 11th year, but even when he is home and off the road, he is rarely sitting still. “Well, I just got back from the studio,” says McCoury, “Ricky Skaggs has a studio real close to where I live. I was in there recording with Ricky and Don Schlitz. Don Schlitz is a Carolina boy, born in Durham. He wrote “The Gambler” for Kenny Rogers and a lot of big hits for other country singers throughout the years”. Since McCoury currently lives in Nashville, there is always plenty of studio work for him when he is “off”. Del is busy. And he knows it. But no matter how hard he tries, he can’t slow down. “I’ll tell you what--I’m trying to slow down, but it seems like I am more wide-open now then before I was trying to slow down”.
When you follow McCoury’s roots, and listen to his story, it’s no surprise he is going strong, and looking dapper doing it. “Well, you know, I grew up on a farm,” says McCoury, “I was always used to hard work. No matter what it was. I always liked a challenge. And I still like to stay busy.”
Farming wasn’t the only thing keeping McCoury’s hands from being idle as a youth. He had an instrument in his hand pretty early on too. “My brother taught me to play the guitar when I was 9. He is 9 years older than me. He taught me how to play so he had someone else to play with at home. He sang Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Ernest Tub, Roy Akum. Honestly, I wasn’t all that impressed with that stuff. But when my brother brought home a Flatt & Scruggs record, once I heard Earl, that was it for me. I knew that’s what I wanted to do… if I could ever learn it.”
Learning how to play bluegrass in 1948 required a much different method than now. And a lot of the work was by ear. According to McCoury, “When I started, the only thing we had was radio, and 78 RPM records to learn from. Nowadays, the young people can go on their computer, and see how musicians are using their fingers, and making chords. Or how they use a pick. We couldn’t see anything. We just had to listen.”
And listen he did. Del’s brother may have been teaching him the country basics, but he was hungry for more. “When I heard Earl Scruggs, I wanted so badly to do what he did, but I needed to see it in order to get it. And when I finally got to see him play in 1955, it opened my eyes to a lot of things. When someone is young like that, like I was, and you see somebody do something, your mind will grab it, and keep it in there. And when I got to see him play in person, things made sense”.
McCoury wasn’t only listening and playing with his brother at home as a youngin, he quickly started a band with his brother, cousin, and his preacher. “We were missionary baptists, so we could play instruments in church. Our preacher sang bass in our quartet. He had been a singer that had played and sung on the Grand Ole Opry years before preaching. Then he got converted. He was from down in Marion, NC. He had a radio show too. We would all play and he would preach. I would have been 15 or so at the time. I remember looking at that microphone in the radio station the first time I played in public. I looked about as big as a football”.
When Bill Monroe called on McCoury to come play with his Bluegrass Boys, it was clear McCoury was here to stay. And it was inevitable that he would make significant contributions to bluegrass. But times, and timelines, were much different then. After a year with Monroe, McCoury quit, and headed to California for a short spell, before returning home to York, Pennsylvania. McCoury had what it took to get to the top. But he also had another path he needed to walk; that of a working man who had to support a family. And one who wanted an active role in his children’s upbringing.
McCoury took a job at his wife’s uncle’s logging company and kept playing music “on the side.” “I worked in the logging industry for quite a long time. At least 20 years. I was still playing music, but mostly on the weekends. During the week I would cut timber or drive a skid steer. Most of the touring I did was east of the Mississippi, so I could get out and back pretty quick without missing much work. I recorded a few records through those years too”.
And he was raising his kids, but at first, he wasn’t steering them towards being professional musicians. “I really did not encourage those boys to play when they were little,” says McCoury, “but I didn’t necessarily discourage them either. I knew what a tough life it can be on the road and I didn’t know if that’s what I wanted for them. But I had a mandolin and banjo at home, and they just took to them. If I was home from work, and hearing them play, trying to teach themselves, I would guide them as they stumbled, and just let them go. But I never pushed it.”
The genes had been passed and those boys blossomed as players quickly. Especially when they joined their fathers band. “When they joined my band at a young age, they were around professional musicians all the time, and learned in leaps and bounds”. Once McCoury saw his boys were obviously gonna keep playing, and that they were extremely talented, he moved his family to Nashville in 1992. “Ricky Skaggs and his wife Sharron really encouraged our family to move here,” says McCoury, “and I owe Ricky a lot for that. Things just worked great once we moved here. It was good timing. And we were lucky in a lot of ways”.
Country music had been booming in Nashville, and bluegrass was making its mark too. The McCoury family quickly established themselves as royalty. But after some years, McCoury knew his sons needed to do something beyond playing with their father. “My wife, manager and I got together and started talking about how the boys were depending on me, since they were in my band. I was about 70 then. And I wanted them to have their own thing going if something ever happened to me. So my manager suggested we get them their own booking agent and that he would manage them, and we could put them out there on their own. What I didn't realize is just how quick they were gonna get a toe hold and start winning Grammy’s over me!”
McCoury speaks about his sons with a great sense of pride. And rightfully so. Del is also very proud of how far bluegrass has come as a genre. He attributes that to IBMA. “The bluegrass world wasn't organized until 1985, when IBMA started. Since we have gotten organized, things have blossomed for this kind of music. Country music was organized about 20 years before bluegrass, and look what they have done. Of course, we are not looking to do what country has done. But, we have to be organized. We all joined IBMA as soon as we could. All of us. And it's been so great for us.”
What McCoury loves most about IBMA is the sense of family and the feeling of community. “It’s like a family reunion every fall. All the promoters, managers, fans, bands get together once a year to exchange ideas and catch up with each other. There are some bands and folks you see on the road all the time, but some you might only see once a year. And that's at IBMA.”
McCoury is fond of IBMA world of Bluegrass because it reminds him of the genres roots, too. “I went to Fincastle Bluegrass Festival for the first time in 1970,” says McCoury, “David Grisman was there. He drove down from New York City, I reckon. I remember sitting in the parking lot pickin’ with David, a great break-down fiddler Billy Baker, and a banjo player named Chris Warner. When I think about how I felt hanging with those fellas, and playing with them, back in 1970, I realize that's what the IBMAs feel like to me now.”
Del McCoury has played bluegrass music for the better part of a century. He has shaped the sound and led the genre from its roots to the present day. And as much as McCoury loves IBMA, you can bet they love him more. Not only because of the mountains of awards his won, but because he has been chosen to co-host the awards this year, alongside North Carolina-born Jim Lauderdale.
Del McCoury will be performing with special guests Sam Bush and Dierks Bentley on Saturday, September 28 at 8:30 PM at the Red Hat Amphitheater in Raleigh, NC as part of PNC Presents: Wide Open Bluegrass at the IBMA World of Bluegrass. Click here for a full schedule and ticket information.