"Tough Times Make Good Songs": Del McCoury on Almost Proud

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"Tough Times Make Good Songs": Del McCoury on <i>Almost Proud</i>

“I was as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs,” Del McCoury says of his early shows with Bill Monroe. This was back in 1963, when McCoury was a 24-year-old kid, tall and skinny with hair that was still dark-brown. He’d recently been hired as lead singer and guitarist for Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, and was thrown into the fray without so much as a rehearsal.

“Bill never called me Del,” McCoury remembers. “He’d say, ‘Dale, I want you to get right up in there with me with the guitar.’ I was young and I wondered if I could keep up with him, but it proved to be no problem. He could play that ‘Rawhide’ as fast as he wanted to, and I could keep up with him. I could sing great with him; we could have switched parts. That gave me confidence that I could work at this level. I knew not everyone would like my kind of music, but I knew a lot of them would.”

McCoury’s not nervous anymore. He stayed with Monroe for only a year, but that experience launched one of the most important careers in bluegrass history. Fans are forever bowing before the Mount Rushmore of this music—Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers—and justly so. But that emphasis on the Founding Fathers can blind one to the giants in our own time, legends that we can still go out and see in person. Del McCoury, now 83, is such a grandmaster.

With the pandemic diminishing (though far from vanished), the Del McCoury Band is back on the road with a new album, Almost Proud. Appearances in March at Florida’s Spring Bluegrass Festival and in April at Texas’s Old Settler’s Music Festival will warm the quintet up for their own extravaganza, Delfest, Memorial Day weekend in Cumberland, Maryland.

McCoury exemplifies the same qualities as Monroe: a hard, driving rhythm, a savvy mix of Celtic fiddle tunes and ballads and West African blues, and an unlikely marriage between instrumental innovations and old-fashioned storytelling. That storytelling doesn’t flinch in the face of hard times. Death, poverty, divorce and alcoholism are acknowledged in the words and overcome in the onrush of the instruments. The new album boasts a bunch of songs about men drinking to get over lost love.

“Tough times make good songs,” McCoury says; “it’s always been that way. For some reason, people who are having tough time are consoled by hearing someone else singing about it. I’ve had people come up to me, men especially, and talk about a song about a guy who’s on the bottle because his wife has left him. They say they play that song over and over again, and there’ll be tears in their eyes. People have problems, and they want to hear those problems in a song because music soothes them.”

But McCoury has allowed Monroe’s music to keep evolving. The younger man insisted on adding new songs to the repertoire and new ideas to the arrangements. He devoted one album to the singing and songwriting of Steve Earle (1999’s The Mountain) and another to collaborations with New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band (2011’s American Legacies). He turned some of Woody Guthrie’s unfinished lyrics into an album of new songs (2016’s Del and Woody), and joined Merle Haggard and others to lament the plight of working folks (2008’s Moneyland).

He won the most prestigious prize in modern bluegrass, the International Bluegrass Music Association Award’s for Entertainer of the Year, a record-setting nine times between 1994 and 2004. Perhaps his biggest achievement, though, has been demonstrating the possibility and the value of keeping a bluegrass band together over many years, even decades.

His current quintet has been stable for 30 years, with the only change being Alan Bartram replacing Mike Bub on bass 17 years ago. McCoury’s mandolin-playing son Ronnie joined in 1981, his banjo-playing son Rob in 1987 and fiddler Jason Carter in 1992, the year the band moved to Nashville.

“The last 30 years have been pretty solid,” says Ronnie, co-producer with Del on Almost Proud. “All of us enjoy playing music with my dad. No one’s ever griped or asked for more pay. He has a way keeping everyone engaged. It’s easy to get bored playing the same songs every night, like a lot of bands do, but my dad keeps it interesting by mixing it up every night.”

Such continuity is a rarity in bluegrass, where the usual model is for an older musician to use young-and-cheap players until the latter get restless and leave for other opportunities, maybe to form their own bands, only to be replaced by a new set of youngsters. Monroe himself had some 500 musicians in his group over the course of his long career. Many of them, like McCoury himself, became famed bandleaders themselves.

But McCoury keeps his bandmates around by making enough money to pay them well and by encouraging them to pursue their own side projects. The now-10-years-old Traveling McCourys—featuring the McCoury sons, Bartram, Carter and guitarist Cody Kilby—are an acoustic string band, but their volume is louder and their solos longer than in Del’s group. They’ve recorded an album with Keller Williams, toured with the Sacred Steel combo the Lee Boys and created a bluegrass tribute to the Grateful Dead.

“We couldn’t just be the Del-less McCoury Band,” Ronnie points out. “My dad was into Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, and so was I. But I’m also interested in David Grisman and Sam Bush. This group allows me to play like that, which is so much fun. And it gives us all a chance to sing more leads.

“And my dad’s very supportive of that. He may be a master at traditional bluegrass, but he’s able to step outside that and enjoy things he doesn’t play himself. When we were growing up, we’d be playing the Allman Brothers, and he’d say, ‘That’s good music.’ He’d always say, ‘There’s only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.’”

All these factors contribute to the unusual stability of the Del McCoury Band, and that explains the group’s equally unusual rapport and cohesiveness. They’ve even developed an entertaining stage choreography that has them all in dark suits gathered around a single microphone with Del’s silver hair a head above everyone else. Different individuals lean forward or lean back as the instrumentalists switch from accompaniment to virtuoso solos and back again. The way the band’s five singers weave harmonies, with all five players using the same rhythmic language, is unmatched in bluegrass history.

“Some musicians play a little behind the beat,” Del explains. “They may do it by choice or they may not know they’re doing it, but I can’t sing with those musicians. I just can’t. For me to sing, I’ve got to have four other guys who play right smash on top of the beat. It doesn’t matter if the song is slow or fast, as long as they’re right on top of it. As soon as it starts to drag, I can’t live with it.”

“For what we do,” adds Ronnie, “the music centers on the rhythm of the guitar. My dad’ll point to Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin and Tony Rice as examples of guitarists whose rhythm led their bands. There’s a lot of dynamics that go with that. When Dad stops singing, the guitar comes back in even stronger. It’s an on-top-of-the-beat rhythm. That’s how we play and that’s what he taught us.”

“Years ago,” Del continues, “I had to train musicians to play in time, but now I’ve got a band that knows what to do without me saying anything. I can play with a musician for just three or four bars, and I can tell if they’ve got that same drive, that same feel. If the listeners can feel that beat, if they can feel it deep down inside, you’ll get their interest. In that sense, there’s not much difference between a good jazz band and a good bluegrass band.”

It helps that unlike many musicians, the members of the Del McCoury Band didn’t learn their instruments by holing up in their bedrooms for months at a time. From an early age, they were playing as part of a professional ensemble, and that made all the difference.

“It’s bad for a kid to learn by themselves,” Del argues. “I’ve had musicians who learned at home, but their timing wasn’t right; they’d drag or rush a bit. But if musicians get in a band at an early age, they’re right on time, because it’s like having a metronome right on top of you. Ronnie and Rob learned a lot by example. What I had to work with them on was melodies. They might be missing a note here or there, and I’d show them. I was busy; I had a day job in those days, but I’d guide them the best I could, and they learned fast.”

After his year with Monroe, Del moved to California to join the Golden State Boys, who had a regular TV gig. But his wife Jean was homesick, and the newlyweds moved back to York County, Pennsylvania. Del worked in his father-in-law’s sawmill and then for a logging company, leading Del McCoury & The Dixie Pals at weekend gigs in south-central Pennsylvania and nearby Baltimore City.

“I come from a working family,” he says. “We grew up on a farm, and I can appreciate what people go through. The war was over in ’45 when I was six, and my dad bought a farm in ’46. We had nine cows we milked by hand. We raised barley, rye and corn. I got a job driving a dump truck. I know what hard work is.”

In the increasingly conservative world of contemporary bluegrass, Del is unafraid of championing the rights of working folks. This was most obvious in his albums of songs from Earle and Guthrie, and his thematic album Moneyland, but even his new album has a couple of songs with that theme.

On the bouncy, uptempo “Working Man’s Wage,” he sings of a millworker who used to “pull forty hours for a hundred-dollar bill. I’ve watched him struggle and I’ve watched him age, raising a family on a working man’s wage.” On the storytelling song “Sid,” featuring a droning fiddle and prickly banjo, Del sings of the real-life figure Sid Hatfield, a police chief who protected the coal miners in Matewan, West Virginia, from the private detectives hired by the mine owners.

The Del McCoury Band played the Grand Ole Opry on March 9, 2020, and a day later the world ground to a halt under the threat of a new virus. With all his gigs canceled and nothing else to do, Del pulled out the box of CDs that bands and songwriters had handed him over the years. He’d always been too busy to listen to them, but now he did just that. From the hundreds of discs, he picked out 26 songs and tried to learn them in keys that felt comfortable. He put down his versions on audio cassettes and when he was happy with the results, he turned them over to the band.

“For us,” Ronnie says, “the worst thing about the pandemic was that my dad in his golden years couldn’t do what he loves most: go out and perform. So to get him in the studio was a triumph. I co-produced with my dad, and a lot of that is just me getting the songs for him to listen to and doing the instrumental arrangements. But I never tell him what songs to record; he always makes that decision. And he decides if a song should be a solo vocal, a duet vocal or a lead with backing. If he says, ‘This would be a good duet all the way through,’ I say, ‘I guess I better learn it right quick.’”

On songs such as Kris Kristofferson’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore,” J.D. Hutchison’s “My Little Darlin’” and Del’s own “Running Wild,” the vocal harmonies between father and son are so tight and sympathetic that they remind one of such legendary brother-duet acts as the Blue Sky Boys, the Monroe Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers. On Mike O’Reilly’s “Honky Tonk Nights,” the vocals are more of a traditional duet, with Del and Vince Gill trading verses and joining voices on the chorus.

Two tracks on Almost Proud feature honky-tonk piano by Josh Shilling that brings out the classic-country side of Del’s music. A question about those songs prompts a surprising story from Del about the time he opened a handful of shows for Jerry Lee Lewis in 1968-69. The Dixie Pals were warming up at a high school in Hereford, Maryland, when Lewis came into the classroom turned into a dressing room, sat down without a word and listened to the rehearsal.

When the promoter came in to tell Del it was time to get onstage, Lewis said, “Keep playing; I’ll pay you whatever you’re working for. Stay and sing for me.” Del demurred and said he really had to fulfill his obligation. That same night someone mentioned to Lewis that with his swept-back brown hair, Del looked a lot like Waylon Jennings at that time. “I don’t give a damn what he looks like,” Lewis snapped. “That boy can sing.”

“When I graduated from high school in ’56,” Del remembers, “Elvis and Jerry Lee were it. But I had already heard Earl Scruggs and that three-finger roll, so I was already committed and stamped for life. After I got older, it dawned me what a great musician and singer Jerry Lee Lewis was. He could have been one of the best bluegrass musicians there ever was. He could sing anything, and he could play guitar, too.”

Lewis never forgot Del, and when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame mounted a concert tribute to Lewis in 2007, he asked for Del to be part of it. When he took the stage, Del saw Lewis sitting right before him in the front row and couldn’t help but admit that he had added another verse to “What Made Milwaukee Famous” when he recorded Lewis’ hit. The Killer didn’t mind. During the grand-finale encore, he leaned over to Del and whispered, “I liked your set.”

“When I started out, I was a bluegrass nut,” Del says, “but late in life, I saw that music is all related somehow. Bill Monroe used to go down to New Orleans and listen to those horns in the jazz bands. Bluegrass was born in Bill’s head, but he drew from all kinds of people. He told me once, ‘I was influenced by a lot of musicians, and people don’t even know it.’”

You could say the same about Del McCoury.

Revisit the Del McCoury Band’s 2018 Paste Studio session below.