To sit in the crowd at a Del McCoury Band show is to sit in the presence of a master of his genre. David Grisman called Del the finest rhythm guitar player in all of Bluegrass and Del has played with the greatest – the very father of the music, Bill Monroe, as one of his “Blue Grass Boys” initially, he thought, to be a banjo player but ultimately as a lead-singing rhythm-picking guitar player. He played with the progenitor of Bluegrass for all of a year before he headed out to California to play with another band. Over time, Del was joined by his two sons Ronnie and Robbie McCoury and together they formed The Del McCoury Band. The band today is rounded out by Alan Bartram on standup bass and Jason Carter on fiddle. There isn’t much better a Bluegrass band touring. These guys are innovative and experimental but rooted in the very best and most genuine aspects of that high lonesome sound.
This is why the Del McCoury Band is special. Del has led his sons and revolving cast of pickers on a near thirty-year run that has left them standing as one of the most stalwart and respected Bluegrass bands on the road. This band can play as downhome and genuine a Bluegrass festival as is out there but be equally comfortable playing to a bunch of dusty hippies at High Sierra Music Festival. The music, like so many kudzu tendrils, find its way and takes hold to the heart of any listener that finds him or herself infected by the genuine kindness and good-natured sweetness that Del emanates. Del’s appreciation for his listeners manifests in giggles of delight when he is bombarded with song requests to which he earnestly, right there in the moment, tries to fulfill.
And that was the real story on Sunday, July 15th, 2018 at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz, California. Before even the first note, those in attendance knew that this would be a special evening. It started with Del, in his perfectly pressed suit and inimitably quaffed hair, followed by his boys and bandmates, walking straight down the theater aisle, right through his audience to the side-stage area. Only hushed whispers from the back alerted fans, row by row, as to what was happening but within minutes everyone was on their feet clapping and shouting and, Del, beamed as his sons looked on. Within minutes of their arrival side-stage, the band took the steps up to the stage and into the lights amidst and even more raucous standing ovation and, again, Del’s toothy smile. They ran through three songs that culminated with a well-worn (in the best sense of the phrase) “Nashville Cats” that found the sweet spot in both crowd and musicians. Then Del opened the show up to requests.
Now, an assumption could be made that when Del opens the show up to any song the crowd wants and is literally shouted at with song titles, it would be easy for him to simply look down at a setlist and look at the next song and just say, “Oh, you wanna hear ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning?’ Yes, we can do that!” and make it sound like the song had been requested. No way, not Del. Here was the part of the show in which he honestly took requests that came from every corner of not only a near thirty-year Del McCoury Band catalogue but mined his solo catalogue stretching back thirty to forty years and beyond! No teleprompters to aid in lyrics, just the razor-sharp memory and execution of a man and band in top form. But the show was played intimately in the way that Doc Watson used to swear that when he played, no matter where he played, he was often as comfortable as though he and the audience were back home picking on the front porch.
Del’s band is outstanding, each musician having repeatedly won (even back to back) International Bluegrass Association first place awards for their respective instruments. Ronnie and Robbie, accompanied by Jason and Alan (with the addition of extraordinarily talented flat picker, Cody Kilby), tour as the Travelin’ McCourys and push the Bluegrass envelope farther than their father, embracing even more daring cover material still rooted in the tradition of the music they love. So, while it could not be easy to just stand up and play every request that came from the crowd, by God they tried and succeeded. The sweetest request had to come from a fellow that shouted out a request for Del’s song “Dreams.”
“’Dreams,’ you say?” replied Del.
“Its one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard,” said the man.
“That’s real nice of you to say that,” said Del.
“I first heard it in Pennsylvania in 1964.”
“1964?” replied McCoury surprised. “Careful, you’ll date us.”
“I was older than you were then.” Said the man.
“Then sir, I feel sorry for you.” Del snickered and then played a signature run into the song, surely making the guy’s night right there. And that is how it rolled – song after song. He spoke to the crowd, he had a conversation with them more akin to a folk musician than a staid luminary of Bluegrass music. He laughed and made jokes and kept the audience utterly engaged.
Surely the highlight of the night though was when Del asked the audience to sing one with him and led the crowd through a couple practice runs of the heart of the chorus of “I Need More Time” from the 2013 release, The Streets of Baltimore. The chorus was slow, thoughtful, and the voices that swelled from the reverent crowd made the song weightier and even more pensive. Here is a man in the deep autumn of his life, the crowd hanging on his every word and eager to be a part of his art. He let the crowd in as he sang of needing more time to complete his dreams of making the world just a little better while he is here. But Del and his band do make the world a better place, show after show and year after year by showing his listeners that he cares and that he is willing to take chances with them – chances that, song by song, illustrate his legacy while he smiles, chuckles and picks with the very best of them. Everyone should have the chance to end their weekend with a 7:30pm Del McCoury show that will send them home appreciating the goodness of what music can always deliver and humming songs that will carry them through their work week.