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The melodic bridge of that ‘high, lonesome sound’: A conversation with Del McCoury

Del McCoury. Del McCoury. Chris Hollo.

When it comes to the preservation and perpetuation of bluegrass music in the 21st century, Del McCoury is the leading force and signature face of its strength and survival moving forward.

At 82, McCoury has stood in front of a microphone and radiated that “high, lonesome sound” since he first joined the Bill Monroe (the “Father of Bluegrass”) as one of his Blue Grass Boys in the mid-1960s.

His passion and talent remains in the steadfast powerhouse that is the Grammy-winning Del McCoury Band, a timeless ensemble that’s remained these many decades later alongside his sons, Ronnie and Robbie (and is one of the most awarded groups in the history of the International Bluegrass Music Association).

In conversation, McCoury is a fountain of knowledge, this melodic bridge between pioneers like Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and Jimmy Martin, and more contemporary acts like Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon, Billy Strings, and The Infamous Stringdusters.

And it’s that extended hand of appreciation and collaboration from McCoury towards new and different acts that’s continually kept the flame of bluegrass alive and burning hot — always expanding its audience into new realms of possibility and potential, always eager to share the wisdom, responsibility and lore of Monroe’s “high, lonesome sound.”

Smoky Mountain News: During the shutdown, did you do a lot of reflecting about what it means to be a performer, and how much you might've missed being onstage?

Del McCoury: Well, yeah. I think that's what I missed most — being onstage. Because I like to talk to people, you know? And I missed that connection. Without it, you miss that. But, I had so many things that I needed to do and get caught up on. So, I kept busy, and I felt pretty good.

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SMN: You’ve always seemed like someone that obviously appreciates and loves what they do, but do you think performing means more to you now?

DM: Well, it probably does. And you know, because all of years [of touring] it was go, go, go. And even though I'm 82, I feel good. The road didn't bother me at all. But, I found out that being home, all those things I got to do [that I hadn’t had time to do], like today I’ve been [outside] working. It’s hot and I’ve been sweating. But, I feel good.

SMN: And that probably plays into the vitality you have at 82.

DM: It could be. I used to cut timber in the woods and did all aspects of that. Cut timber. Saw up on the yard. Saw the trees into logs. Run the loaders. Run skidders. I did all of it. And it kept me in good physical shape all through the years.

I did that through the middle 1980s. I was playing music, recording records, traveling, and still working in the woods. But, me and my wife got pretty independent and quit that. In 1992, we moved down here to [Nashville], Tennessee.

SMN: Where does that work ethic come within you?

DM: I was raised on a farm. We did everything, Raised corn, wheat, barley, rice and cattle. At first, it was horses [to help do the work]. Then, we got tractors later on. We had a dairy farm. So, I started out working on a farm. I tried working in a factory and barely could stand that. I was climbing the walls by the first weekend. I couldn’t stay in that big coop [of a factory].

SMN: And you never gave up your dream of being a professional musician. You traveled all over. Played thousands of shows. You made it all happen. Playing devil’s advocate here, if you were a younger musician today — looking at the landscape of what the music industry has become — would you still have the same drive you had back then?

DM: Yeah. The younger musicians today? They have a better chance at it, actually, than I did. Back then, [bluegrass] music in general wasn’t that big. I mean, we had stars, but it wasn’t until [bluegrass] festivals started to pop up.

[Back then], we were playing pretty cheap, even Bill Monroe. When I was with him, he wasn't making that much money, [at least] until the bluegrass festival [scene] was started. And the music, for some reason, it just boomed or blossomed.

[People] were coming from all countries in the world, all coming to those festivals. [Another reason] was that we started the [International Bluegrass Music Association], too. We got organized and the music blossomed — it spread all over the world.

SMN: You've always been someone that's embraced younger musicians. Even though you have a very traditional style, you've always been very welcoming of different avenues of string music. Where does that come from?

DM: Well, I hear things. I hear other styles of music, certain parts that I like. Even in songs I did, I was never constrained to one thing, you know? I like to challenge [myself]. I like a challenge.

[Look at] Bill Monroe. This guy who played with Monroe [once] told me, “You know, Monroe would go down to Louisiana and listen to them horns.” I’d say, “Oh yeah, what was he listening to them for?" [Laughs]. Well, he’d go down there and stay a week or two, just stay by himself when he wasn’t busy playing music. And he’d pick up stuff.

And Monroe told me this one time, “You know, I learn from other musicians, but they don’t know it.” Because when he’d play his version of what he heard, it don’t sound nothing like what they were doing. He was talking about horns, other strings and whatever.

SMN: I saw you recently did a collaboration with Billy Strings. And I was curious about your thoughts on him, seeing as he's not only becoming a torchbearer in string music, he's crossing a lot of barriers and bringing a lot of new people into the scene.

DM: I tell you what, he's got it all. He can sing. He can play. He can entertain. He’s an entertaining guy, you know? He opened a show for me and David Grisman [years ago] at the City Winery in Chicago. And we got to know those guys. I told David, “Hey, this guy’s an entertainer.” He can work a crowd and is a great guitar player. And he’s just started to grow in leaps and bounds — all he needed was some exposure.

SMN: It must be comforting to know string music is in pretty good hands right now, and moving forward.

DM: Yeah, it is. It’s constantly growing since I started in music. It’s grown so much. And, you know, I've been blessed. I think the Lord has blessed me to be able to have this career and play music.

And it all started with Bill Monroe [in 1945]. He was experimenting with different musicians. He was a bluegrass guy from that bluegrass country. He was always trying different stuff.

He eventually got Lester Flatt, who was a great singer and guitar player. He got [bassist Cedric Rainwater] and Chubby Wise, who was a swing fiddler. That fiddle could sound just like a vocal — it could sing.

Of course, they were all young and, you know, God probably thought, “Well, look, if there's going to be a bluegrass band, let's get that banjo picker [Earl Scruggs] out of North Carolina and put a band together. It's going to be a bluegrass band. We're going to make a good one right from the start.” They set a standard that nobody can beat. Nobody. I don't care who it is.

Want to go?

The Del McCoury Band will perform at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 5, at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre in the Montford district of Asheville.

There will be special opening set, titled: "Still Inside: A Tribute to Tony Rice (featuring Travis Book of The Infamous Stringdusters with Jon Stickley, Shawn Lane, and Lyndsay Pruett)."

Gates open at 6 p.m. Tickets start at $30 per person. For more information and/or to purchase tickets, click on www.hazelrobinsonamphitheatre.com.

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