Del McCoury is at it again. At 77 years young he is still very excited about music and creating projects that will be enjoyed by generations to come. This one might just be the most talked about as it’s rare for two artists to team up on music separated by 70+ years…some of these lyrics were written the year Del was born, but with Woody’s timeless lyrics, and Del’s timeless sound, nothing matters but the songs.
You could almost say that the cover of the new release from the Del McCoury Band tells you everything you need to know: two giants of American music, both known far and wide by their first names, guitars in hand, looking out at the world with a bold gaze and a characteristic expression. But there’s a story behind Del And Woody (McCoury Music, street date 4/15/16), a collection of Woody Guthrie lyrics set to music by Del McCoury—and while its dozen songs speak eloquently for themselves, knowing how they came to be adds a dimension that’s sure to deepen every listener’s enjoyment.
“When he recorded with Steve Earle back in the late 90s, that’s when I really discovered Del McCoury,” says Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, guardian of the famed singer/songwriter’s unique legacy—and of an archive containing a treasure trove of memorabilia, recordings and, especially, notebooks filled with song lyrics.
Still, it wasn’t until the Newport Folk Festival’s 50th anniversary in 2009 that she zeroed in on the bluegrass patriarch’s unique fitness for what became Del And Woody. “After hearing Del’s show,” she recalls, “I remember thinking that if my dad had had a band, it would very possibly have sounded very much like Del’s. An invitation went to Del to perform at a Woody Guthrie
Centennial concert in Tulsa a couple of years later gave her the opportunity to hear him singing a few of her father’s songs—“I think Del’s ‘So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh’ is the best version I’ve ever heard,” she notes—and the deal was sealed.
For McCoury, Guthrie’s name was mostly unfamiliar, though his songs weren’t. “It took a while before I heard his name,” he remembers. “But then I started learning that so many of the songs I was hearing, from ‘Philadelphia Lawyer’ to ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ were his. So when Nora said she wanted to send me some lyrics, I already knew what a great writer he was. She sent me a few, then sent me some more, a few dozen in all.”
“When I read them, it seemed pretty easy to me to hear the music that would fit. Nora said, ‘you can change some things if you want to,’ and I said no. He’s a great writer, and I do not want to change anything in his songs. I would just like to put a melody to these words so that maybe folks will accept the songs, and that’s what we did.”
Though it took the process years to come to fruition the result is an album that really transcends the concept of collaboration. For while Del McCoury is not quite of Guthrie’s generation, these two American masters share an unsurpassed breadth of experience, outlook, shared interests and common backgrounds. So what you hear is the simple and easy unity of these two artists. As Nora Guthrie says, “It sounds as if these lyrics and melodies have been around together forever, or as Pete Seeger says, ‘that’s genius’.”
Given the importance of family to this project—whether in Woody’s obvious affection for his own, in Nora’s dedication to keeping his artistry alive and appreciated, or in the McCourys’ collective career—it’s fitting to leave the last word here to Nora’s brother, acclaimed singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie. “The entire album goes back to a place and time that these days, are an almost forgotten era,” he says. “But, Del’s high bluegrass voice brings it all back into focus…It’s amazing how little the human condition has changed, and good to be reminded that humor, attitude, and great music are timeless. Thank you, Del.”
The world did get a brief glimpse into the project when “The New York Trains” was released on the 2014 audio book CD set, “My Name is New York; Ramblin’ Around Woody Guthrie’s Town”. That song was honored with a Grammy Nomination at the 57th Grammy Awards for Best American Roots Song.
The Del McCoury Band will be touring in support of this release in 2016. On designated “Del & Woody” shows the band performs this album in its entirety with companion videos to each song playing behind them. It really does bring Woody’s work to life after many years of these lyrics sitting on a shelf.