Mr. Del McCoury has been an essential part of preserving the high and lonesome sound of bluegrass that evolved in the 30’s with Bill Monroe. Alongside his band of sons and longtime friends and legends in bluegrass, Del has played for over 50 years across the country, and even has a festival in his name, Delfest, that is going on its fifth year. To celebrate the time that he played with Bill Monroe, he recently put out Old Memories: The Songs Of Bill Monroe; a collection of the father of bluegrass’ songs, recorded by the Del McCoury Band.
Tell me a little bit about the history behind you joining Bill Monroe’s band back in 1963.
It’s kind of a long story, Tyler. I wound up playing in Baltimore, Maryland with Jack Cook. He was a former Bluegrass Boy. He had played with Bill Monroe before. He was a guitar player and lead singer with Bill. I got a job playing banjo with him because at this time I was a banjo player, I had been playing banjo for about ten years then and I was something around 20. I was barely old enough to play a bar. He quit Bill and he came up there in Baltimore and started his own band, and I started played Banjo with him.
Bill Monroe was going to play New York University, but he didn’t have a guitar player for bluegrass. We were playing this little club (in Baltimore) three nights a week, and sometime during that week he had called Jack and wondered if Jack would go with him to New York City to play that gig they had. And so he came in the club at night, I think it was probably the Friday night, but I don’t remember exactly which night it was. And he had come in and during one of our breaks, him and Bill were talking. He said to Bill, “Do you have a banjo player?” And he said “No I don’t.” It was just him, Bessie Lee (Mauldin) played bass with him, and Kenny Baker was a great fiddler and he was playing fiddle with him. So it was just the three of them. It took me a while to play the banjo, and we went up there and never rehearsed anything. Walked out there and started playing.
I knew some of his stuff, but I didn’t know all of it. But he kind of depended on Jack, because Jack was the lead singer, and he knew a lot of his songs that Bill had recorded previously. But by this time I was a pretty good banjo player, and I could take a break on anything and I could play backup on just about anything, without even running through it. So, I didn’t worry much about it. I had quite a bit of confidence. That was my audition, playing New York University. After we played the show he offered me a job, that’s kind of the way it worked out with me.
Was there time between when you were offered the job, quitting Jack’s band, and when you accepted Bill’s offer?
Yeah. You know, I liked playing with Jack better because we were pretty close in age, and Jack was a great guitar player, and I just liked playing with him. And of course me and him had a group; me, him, a fiddle player, and my brother Jerry playing bass. So anyway, I just kind of hesitated to go down there. I told him (Bill Monroe) “I kind of like playing with Jack,” and I was kind of afraid to move to Nashville. He told me “Look, if you ever get the notion to take this job, I’m gonna give you my phone number. And when you get down into Nashville, if you do come, just come to a place called the Clarkston Hotel, up on Seventh Avenue. Give me a call and I’ll come in and we’ll talk about it, or whatever.” Eventually I did that.
This is another twist in the story. I got down there one evening, and I called him that night, and he said, “I’ll be there in the morning.” There was a restaurant joining the hotel there, and right next to that was the place where they had the Friday night frolic or Friday Night Opry. They had a Friday night Opry then. It was called the National Life And Accident Insurance Company, and they were sponsoring the Opry. And they had a big building there, and that’s where they had the Opry. Anyway, (the next morning) when I had got down into the lobby of the hotel, I saw another guy standing there with a banjo. I didn’t think anything about it. I don’t think I even had the time to speak to this guy. So Bill Monroe walked in, and so he came over to me and said “Come on, follow me,” and then we went over to that guy and said “come on, follow me.” So he took us into the restaurant next store.
And Bill Monroe was a man of few words, he didn’t say too much. Anyway, he said “Boys, now go ahead and order something, I’ll buy you breakfast.” And so, we ordered something and probably had a little bit of small talk and he said “Now let’s go next door to this building, the National Life building, and we went up to this room, and there was a guitar in this room. It was his Martin guitar in a Gibson case. I should tell you this, the other guy was Bill Keith. And that was the other banjo player. So we’re up in this room, and I remember auditioning on guitar. Now the first thing I learned to play was guitar before banjo, so I knew a little bit about guitar, you know. I knew a little about playing rhythm and all that. So, I remember auditioning that way, and Bill Keith told me though, just lately, “You know, he auditioned us two ways.” He said “He had you play guitar, and me banjo. Then he had me play guitar, and you play the banjo.” He said “I’m not a good guitar player, never was.” He said that’s why he heard us that way. He had me start on guitar and play lead with him, and Bill Keith played banjo. He (Bill Monroe) told me, “You’ll like this job better.”
Now, he still needed a lead singer. I didn’t realize this though, but he still needed this lead singer, and he knew I could sing. So, I think that’s one of the reasons too, he had me play the guitar, so I could sing lead. He told me, “You’ll like this,” and I thought “Oh no,” because all I had thought about for ten years was banjo (laughs). And (I thought) he’ll be mistaken here. But he proved me wrong, because I did start liking it, you know, once I got used to playing rhythm and runs and learning the words to the songs, because I could sing any part, but I knew choruses, I never learned that many verses of songs, because I was kind of a part singer, I knew how to sing lead, it’s just that I had to learn the verses to the songs that he did. He would always sing the tenor parts on the chorus. And he had a lot of songs where he sang lead, and tenor on the chorus. But then he had songs where his lead singer, whoever was in the band at the time, he’d have them sing the verses on the record. I had to learn those (laughs).
On your recent release, Old Memories: The Songs Of Bill Monroe, are those all songs you played with Bill?
For the most part. But you know, there was a couple that he put on record and that I had heard, but I’ve never heard him sing onstage. But that’s kind of the way it is though, with a band. You know, a lot of times they’ll record a record, but they won’t always do all the songs that are on that record onstage. There’s one that Hank Williams wrote, the “Alabama Waltz” and I never heard him sing that song. But I liked it because I had the record. Years ago I had had that record, and I liked that song. And also, I never heard him do the “Lonesome Truck Driver Blues.” And you know, there were a few that I liked, that I wanted to do. And I kind of wanted to do things that weren’t overdone. There must have been a lot of people who have recorded “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” or “Little Footprints In The Snow” or “Uncle Pen.” And I wanted to do them in the same key he recorded them, while I still can. Some of them pitch pretty high, and I can still do that, so, I wanted to record them in the same tempos. And then he had some with two or three fiddles, and my fiddle player just played all three parts, man, he did the lead and then he played usually a tenor part and a baritone part overdubbed.
Well, Jason (Carter) is a great fiddler. He’s been getting more of the recognition he deserves.
He is, you know, and you’re right about that. He was wondering who would get to play the other fiddles. Now some of them have just one single fiddle on them, because that’s the way Bill did them. He kind of wondered about that, and well I said, "you’re the one who’s going to play all the parts."
You’re going to be having all the fun.
Right. There’s good fiddle players in this town that I’m sure that he probably would have wanted to play with him. But I said no, it’s better to use just him, because once you put down the lead part, you don’t have to think about the other two, because you already know where they’re at.
He doesn’t have to go through the process of explaining and working it out with other fiddle players.
That’s true you know. Because he’s a great part singer, too. He knows part singing, so that made it easy to play the parts for that. And of course Ronnie took some great mandolin breaks on some of the things that Bill played. And Rob did too. The guys they really played great on this.
And you know there’s a variety in tempos. Because Bill played some stuff that was really crooked, really fast. I did “John Henry,” and I did “Lonesome Road Blues,” to break up all that slow monotonous stuff. Because it can get monotonous after awhile; some of the slower things in the mid tempo. And they can handle that fast stuff, they can cook right along. (laughs)
How about the rest of the band? Were they all familiar with the songs on the record?
Well, you know, I had heard them millions of times myself. I’ve listened to Bill Monroe since probably 1950 or something. First time I saw him was in 1950…and I was 11. And he was playing at a drive in movie. On top of the refreshment stand. A lot of bands did that in those days. They would have a live band come in and play between movies and people would sit in their car and they would have a little speaker in their car, and when the band would get done with a song, they would just blow their horn for applause.
But then, some people, you see, they never got out of their car. They just stayed in their car and listened. They didn’t look. But then there would be a lot of people that would stand out kind of under the roof of the refreshment stand, and look up at the band. That was the first time I saw him.
Where were you? In the car, or under the refreshment stand?
Standing as close I could to that refreshment stand to see this, you know.
I was always so interested in music. It really fascinated me, to go to that show. My sister was going to that movie, my older sister, and so I wanted to go along, and I begged her, to see Bill Monroe. And then I saw (Lester) Flatt and (Earl) Scruggs for the first time in 1955, I was driving by that time, too. Oh, and you asked me about the boys. I’ll tell you, the boys have listened to those same records. My boys, I told them, there were a lot of young mandolin players around by the time Ronnie came along, and I said (to Ronnie), “If you’re going to listen to a mandolin player, listen to Bill Monroe because he was the one that invented the bluegrass mandolin. And before him, there was not a bluegrass mandolin player.”
He was definitely a pioneer in the bluegrass world.
Yeah, I’ll tell ya. And then I told Rob, who came along a little bit later, he was the banjo player, and he plays with me. He wanted to learn to play, and I said “Look, listen to Earl Scruggs because that’s the man. He’s the man who always energized his younger ones, that are now my age (laughs). They all listened to Earl Scruggs when they learned to play.” So I said “He’s the one that set the template for this stuff. That three finger roll, man, he was it. He and Don Reno, those two. And they played two different styles, completely. But they still used the three finger roll. It’s just that they adapted in just a different way, you know. And Don was a great electric guitar player, or acoustic, either one, so he played a lot of things. And Earl was too, but Earl played with finger picks. But Don could take a flat pick and tear a guitar up hard. He could play a guitar like nobodies business.
Way back years ago, before anyone had heard of Doc Watson, he was playing with a flat pick before that and before Clarence White because he played with Arthur Smith down there in Charlotte, North Carolina. And they recorded things on a five string and tenor banjo, and it was really good man. In 1955 they recorded “Feudin Banjos,” they called it. It was two banjos, a tenor and a five string, and I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the version, but it came out in 1955, and that’s where all the other versions sprang from. Everything you hear anyone else do is watered down compared to that first one. That was really great. And I hadn’t heard it in years until just lately, someone played it on the radio somewhere. Arthur Smith, they used to call him Guitar Boogie Smith, because he wrote the “Guitar Boogie” and they had a big recording studio down there in Charlotte, and Don Reno worked for him. He played five string banjo, and Arthur Smith was also a great tenor banjo player so they recorded that song.
It’s funny, I was working for Don, I worked one winter for him because the guy that was playing guitar with him had to go to the hospital for a while and my brother was playing bass for Don and they wanted me to play that winter until Bill Harrell got better and I played with him. While I was there, Don said “I was in New York City this week,” and I said “Were you?” Between weekends. We were playing weekends. He said “Yeah, Arthur Smith called me and wanted me to go up there, he’s going to court.” He said “They put out this movie, called Deliverance, and these guys played this tune that we wrote and they claimed it. And so, he wanted me to go with him.” The judge said, “Look, if you guys wrote this tune, can you still play it?” And they said, “Sure, but we don’t have nothing to play on. We didn’t bring instruments.” So the judge sent out there in the city, to ask somebody to come in with a tenor banjo, and a plektrum. It was one with a real long neck for Don, that’s what he told me. “That neck was a half mile long.” The five string. And they played it for the judge, and they won that case. Of course, they had a record of it with them. But I guess they couldn’t really prove that they played on the record, you know. You could put a name on it, but that wouldn’t mean nothing. So he had them play it in person for him, and they won the case. They won a lot of money. from the Deliverance movie.
Wow, that’s a story to be told.
Some story, but it’s real interesting. It’s funny, Don Reno and Earl Scruggs came from the same part of the country down there and knew each other and yet neither one learned from the other. They were both young guys and they just kinda came up with their own styles without being around each other enough to play. Because by the time they became accomplished pickers, they were up in their twenties and they were working with a professional band from down there, each one of them were. But anyway, I got off the subject there Tyler. (laughs)
I wanted to touch upon some other things in the bluegrass world. This will be your fifth year doing DelFest, right?
Yep. The fifth year.
I’m a huge fan of progressive-bluegrass, also known as newgrass. What inspired you to be an advocate for bands that find themselves not in the traditional realm of bluegrass?
Well, I’ll tell you Tyler. The first progressive band I guess I heard of really any fame, would be Sam Bush and those guys, and I was friends with those guys, still am. Back when the festivals started up like in the middle of the 60’s, they were the first progressive bluegrass band to come along to play. And they were just kind of playing things that they heard growing up, you know.probably from the 50’s and 60’s. Of course Sam grew up listening to Bill Monroe but he had his own ideas about things, and I liked what they were doing, I just couldn’t picture myself getting away from that sound, that original hardcore bluegrass sound. I never did. In the bands that I’ve had through the years, I stuck with that first sound I heard, that structure of a band, that high lonesome sound and all that. That’s what I liked. But I also liked to hear those other guys, I just couldn’t see myself doing it.
I’ve been friends with Sam all through the years and I just recorded with him last year or something like that. Doing an album together with Sam. But that’s not the story. Anyway, of course I’ve played these bluegrass festivals through the years and they’d have a mixture of bluegrass at them. They didn’t have any jam band stuff, most of the time. Until I started playing some other festivals that did have jam bands. My first one might have been… I wrote a song and Phish recorded it, and they wanted me to come up and do their festival up there on the lake in New York.
Camp Oswego in 1999, I believe.
They were up there on that lake. They had a festival. It was an old airport runway. So they wanted me to come up and play, and I really didn’t know who this band was. Now, my sons did. They keep up with the new stuff and all (laughs). So we went up there and played. There was 77,000 people that were there, the day that we went. Of course they weren’t bluegrass fans, because I’m not sure if they knew we were going to be there. Now Trey said to me, “What do you think we can sing together?” And I said, “Oh, I don’t know. I have no idea.” So I didn’t know what he knew. And I thought, I probably don’t know anything that he would know. So anyway, he said to me, “Do you know Blue And Lonesome.” (and I said) “You mean the one that Bill Monroe recorded?” and he said “Yeah.” And I said “Oh yeah, I used to have to sing that every day.” (laughs) Because it was Monroe. And I said, “You know that song?” And that’s as hardcore bluegrass as you can get, and Trey knew that song. So I thought, these guys must have done their homework. They know this stuff, you know. And I said, “Yeah, let’s do that. We’ll do that” They recorded a song called “Beauty Of My Dreams” that I wrote, and they played it on a live album, and that’s one of the reasons they wanted us to come up and play. We did that song too. And then we did some more. We did some more things together. And then from that a lot of the smaller jam bands, they wanted us to come play their festivals, or their gigs, so we did, and we became friends with a lot of them. Like Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident, and later on, Yonder Mountain String Band, and they’re all nice guys. They play it the way they feel it, which I feel is good, because that’s the way I’ve always done it.
Personally, the band that I find myself listening to the most out of the jam-grass scene, is Railroad Earth. They’re a great band.
Yeah, they’re great.
And I think it’s great that veterans in the business like yourself are pushing for these newer bands to get out there and make a name for themselves, especially when a band could be playing a song you grew up playing and listening to, and playing it in a totally different style, yet you still embrace it. Especially pushing for those types of bands to be at your festival.
That’s true. They’re great, those guys. And it takes variety I think. If you’re going to have an event, It’s hard to have say for instance, all bluegrass. In my mind, a lot of the bluegrass today, it has kind of the same sound where years ago we had all of these individual bands sounds. I don’t know, it just seems that way to me. Years ago, Bill Monroe sounded like Bill Monroe, and Flatt & Scruggs sounded like Flatt and Scruggs, and the Osborne Brothers sounded like themselves. It’s funny, but today it kind of all runs together for me. There’s some differences, you know. But not like it once was. I like a variety of sounds. I like a distinct sound. And all these bands like Railroad Earth, they have their own distinctive sounds. Plus, they entertain, you know. That’s another thing. Show business is show business.
And continuing on with Railroad Earth… They have a side project within the members of the band, called the Shockenaw Mountain Boys. It’s everyone in Railroad Earth except for the drummer Carey Harmon, and guitarist and singer-songwriter Todd Sheaffer. They do more of the stripped down bluegrass than what you get when Railroad Earth plays a show, but even then, they’re still putting their own spin on classic repertoire. I mention this because it ties back in with your statement that you play what you feel.
That’s true. Everyone has a distinctive voice, they have a distinctive way that they play, even if they can play the melody to a song, they can play the melody exactly, yet they play it different, and they approach it different. Variety is good and that’s why we book all these different bands that we do. It’s that variety. And we try to get some really hardcore bluegrass bands, too. It’s working great. We were talking last night, we have to have our lineup together here pretty soon for this spring, and if I’m not mistaken Railroad Earth is playing again. They’ve played for us quite a few times I think.
They’ve played every year.
Yeah. That’s what I thought. They’ve been great. I’ve been wanting to get my old buddies that have been playing bluegrass. We got Bobby Osborne and Jesse McReynolds, and we had J.D. Crowe one year. But eventually I’ll get them all there at least once. But then there’s some bands that we kind of try to get every year. Yonder Mountain, they’re coming back this year. We had trouble getting them at first. They were busy. But now, they’re open for that thing. So they will come back. I’m trying to remember who else we’re trying to get…
We’ve had them at the festival, but they’re coming back.