Del McCoury Talks New Album ‘Almost Proud’, Love of Story Songs, Billy Strings, Meeting Jerry Garcia and More (INTERVIEW)

Anyone who has ever been lucky enough to speak with Del McCoury has surely found themselves immersed in tales that stretch back sixty years and often involve some of the most famous musicians in bluegrass, country, and even rock. Indeed, the legendary bluegrass picker has a lifetime of stories to tell and he loves to share them. Perhaps not surprisingly, McCoury also loves a good story song. His new album ­­­­­­Almost Proud is filled with both originals and covers that all tell stories of the workingman, an essential part of America’s fabric who often gets overlooked or, sadly, generalized as being a Trump-worshipping idiot. But there are a lot of good people out there and McCoury knows that at least some of them have a story worthy of a bluegrass tune. Composed of songs that capture the blue-collar mindset alongside love songs, drinking songs, and even a song about coal country, Almost Proud finds McCoury – who just celebrated his eighty-third birthday – to be in fine form and sharper than ever in both his singing and playing.

Like many artists forced off the road during the pandemic, McCoury found himself with time to dig through piles of songs he had acquired over the years. Eventually, he selected close to thirty songs to record before narrowing it down to the twelve we hear on Almost Proud. Backed by the boys of the Del McCoury Band, he once again proves that even after a lifetime of bluegrass experiences, he is still one of the most exciting and adventurous band leaders in the genre.    

Recently, McCoury sat down for a freewheeling conversation that touched on his new album, his love of story songs, meeting Jerry Garcia, helping Billy Strings get booked, his days as a Bluegrass Boy, and more.

What’s it been like getting back on tour again?

I enjoy traveling and talking to people and being onstage. The last date I played before the pandemic was the Grand Ole Opry. They have shows Friday or Saturday night and also Tuesday or Wednesday sometimes. I played a Tuesday night show March 9th and after that, they shut ‘er down all over the country. But I figured with this time off, it was a good time to gather up songs. People send me songs all the time, like on a CD or whatever, and I’ll throw them in a box because I don’t have time to listen to them most of the time. I took time [during the lockdown] to listen to a lot of things people had sent me. And also, I wrote a couple songs, so I kind of made use of our time off. I think we [recorded] over twenty-five songs, but then we got twelve or thirteen on the album.

So you had all these songs. Did you actually cut them all in the studio and will you release more down the line?

Yeah, I cut them all in the studio, enough for an LP. They’re all done and mastered and everything. My manager said eventually we’ll release the [full collection].

What kind of people send you songs? Is it famous musicians or just random folks looking for you to record their stuff?

Oh yeah, it’s random…really random [chuckles]. Sometimes it’s hard to listen to the guy singing it [laughs], you know what I mean? But, if he’s got a melody there and he’s got a good song – a lot of the times it’s a story song – [and] once in a great while I get one where I think, oh, I gotta hang with this song at least until he’s done singing it [laughs] and a lot of the times it’s gold. But then too, there are so many songwriters in Nashville that make a living writing songs, and when they find out you’re going to record, they might write a song where they say, ‘you know, I think this will suit Del McCoury.’ They’ll come up with an idea or whatever and send it to me. It might be country songwriters – who knows – but [those people] will send me a song every once in a while because they think it suits my style. A lot of times it might, and then other times I’ll think, I can’t see what they’re thinking [laughs] that this suits me, and so I just leave it alone. It’s a process of elimination is what it is. I’ve gotten songs from places that I never would’ve thought I would get them from.

Can you give an example of one like that?

There was a guy in California – I can’t remember his name – but he sent this song. This is the one I was thinking about when I said it was hard to listen to this guy sing. But once I heard the song, I thought man, this is a great song. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve had people record my songs. Dolly Parton recorded one, Dierks Bentley recorded a couple I think. Dan Tyminski sent me one recently to put melody to. It’s been a couple months now and I saw him in Texas, and he said no hurry, we’re not recording until January [2021]. I think [Alison Krauss] is not going to record until January. I got to sing with her and, what’s that guy’s name, big rock star over in England…

Robert Plant?

Yeah! I got to sing. He had a duet album and I got to sing one trio on that record. They called me to sing the part between Robert Plant and Alison. She sings high and he sings kind of lower, so they wanted me to sing a tenor part on that record.

Had you met him before?

Never. Now my son knows the bass player [John Paul Jones] in [Led Zeppelin]. They [have gotten] together sometimes in the last years. They did a show over in England. He wanted both my boys to come over to the show, so they went to England. Ronnie found him a good mandolin to buy and play. It’s like a 1923 Lloyd Loar Gibson. Bill Monroe’s mandolin was a 1923 Lloyd Loar. Gibson hired this acoustic engineer and his name was Lloyd Loar, and he designed these mandolins. There were five models and he would inspect every one of them, and if it didn’t suit him, right back to the chopping block it [went]. So he was costing Gibson a lot of money [laughs]! They made a certain amount of these Lloyd Loars and they made a batch of them in 1923 and still were making them in ’24 and that was it – they got rid of Lloyd Loar. So he said, ‘I’ll show Gibson!’ and he invented the electric bass after they got rid of him. Can you believe that?! So Ronne got [John Paul] a 1923 Lloyd Loar. He’s a pretty got mandolin player actually.

With your new album, what made you want to record a collection of workingman’s songs and focus on that as the theme of the album?

Well, I did have a job at one time or another. I was a working guy, I worked a day job and played music at the same time. Lost a lot of sleep [laughs]. You didn’t want to lose your day job for playing music. There’d be times I would come in off the road without any sleep and go back to work. But you know I don’t have to do that anymore…I couldn’t do that anymore! That’s when the kids were all small. I guess a lot of the songs that I sing are geared towards the workingman.

Do you feel like blue-collar life needs a positive portrayal these days?

Well, yeah. One time we did an LP geared towards middle America, you know, the people that are neglected a lot, and we got a lot of our friends to be on the record. I recorded a couple of songs, and one I did was called “Moneyland.” It tells about how this country is moneyland. Then Merle Haggard did one called “Workingman’s Blues” and Tim O’Brien came in and did a song. There was a great piano player [named Bruce Hornsby] – first time I ever saw him was when he had a band with Jerry Garcia. I knew Jerry Garcia before he was in the Grateful Dead. I played in New York City with Bill Monroe and met David Grisman then and through David I met Jerry Garcia. I met David at a gig and they were playing the next day, and he said, ‘I want you to meet my banjo player,’ and it was a guy with real wild hair and a black beard and it was Jerry Garcia. That’s when I first met Jerry.

Were you friendly over the years?

Yeah. I played a placed in California with Bill Monroe called the Ash Grove which was in Hollywood. We’d play there a week or two at a time and do other gigs too. Garcia told me, ‘I was in the audience when you guys played there in Ash Grove. I wanted to be a bluegrass boy and work for Bill Monroe but I was too bashful to go up and ask him.’ I said, ‘boy, I wish you had because our banjo player quit while we were there!’ [laughs] Bill asked me, ‘who do you think we can get out here to play?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know nobody out here Bill.’ Well, [Jerry] would’ve just come right in the band that day if we knew him and he knew us.

That might’ve changed history.

It would’ve.

You have a great song called “Sid Hatfield.” What made you want to cut a song about coalmine conflicts? I feel like that doesn’t get talked about enough in history.

There’s a guy that’s front West Virginia but he lives in Baltimore now, and he wrote that. I had recorded at least a couple of his songs before. I heard this one and I thought that was a good story about the coalminers, the Hatfields and all that stuff. I like the story mainly. This guy stood up for all of the coalminers and then somebody had him and his buddy shot right on the courthouse steps. I do like a story song – they are the hardest ones for me to remember when I have to sing onstage. If you get the story screwed up, you’re in trouble.

There’s not too many repeated verses in those songs.

I know [chuckles]. A lot of songs you don’t have many words to remember. I don’t know why I choose these songs, but I do. Now some of the old songs I can remember, but the newer stuff is harder for me. A lot of times I have to have a teleprompter. I did a Woody [Guthrie] record – Nora Guthrie approached me about doing some songs her dad had written. Nobody had ever recorded them, including her dad! I said, I kind of hate messing with Woody Guthrie but if you want me to try to write melodies, I will and I can give you a song or two. Then she sent me 26 songs to put melodies too, so I thought well, I better get to work here. It was at a time when I could work on them. I got 26 done and we released 12 I believe and I had 4 that we didn’t release out of 26. Of course, some of them we never even recorded. I enjoyed that. I’d never done that before – take somebody’s else’s songs and put melodies to them. Half the work’s done – all you have to come up with is a melody! Woody was a great songwriter. Nora asked me, ‘did Bill Monroe ever record any of my dad’s songs?’ I said no, I don’t think he did. Later on, I thought now wait a minute – I used to sing a song onstage with Bill Monroe called “The Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” and it was a Woody Guthrie song! It didn’t dawn on me then, but I think that might’ve been the only one he ever recorded of Woody’s. That would’ve been ’62 or something.

I’d love to hear your take on this moment that bluegrass music is having right now with Billy Strings selling out arenas and stuff. What do you think about that?

That’s great! You know the Dawg? We call David Grisman the Dawg. Me and the Dawg were doing some duet shows. We played [in Chicago] – I think that is where I first met Billy. He used to have a partner, like a mandolin player, just like me and David. Billy and his partner had a guitar and a mandolin and they went out and did shows. Our booking agent said, I’m going to book these guys to open some shows for you too. I remember we played at City Winery in Chicago and I think that’s when I met Billy and he was with his partner there and of course they broke up. He wasn’t doing good then as far as working and all that stuff. We had DelFest and he came to it just as a fan. Of course, he got his guitar out and he’s playing with my grandsons – I got two young grandsons that play guitar – and those three guys stayed up all night playing guitars until the sun come up! My booking agent got to hear this boy and he started booking him. [The booking agent] told him, ‘Look, if you get a band, we’ll book you,’ because he could see potential in him and I could too. Even at that young age – that was probably five years ago. I thought, this kid can sing, he can play the guitar, he can play lead, he can play rhythm, and what he had over most young guys at that age…he could entertain! He just had the whole package and didn’t know it. I’m sure he didn’t even realize it [laughs]. That was what he had over all the young musicians his age: he could entertain – it was natural for him to do that. I met his dad too, they played twin guitars. His dad’s a great guitar player. I’m really glad to see that, and I feel like I had a hand in him making what he’s doing now. Oh, and he had me come in and do a record with him recently.

That was a great record.

We did that old song [“Midnight on the Stormy Deep”] and it came out pretty good. He plays mandolin and I play the guitar [laughs] – we switched around. He wanted to borrow my son’s mandolin because he didn’t have one, so he borrowed Ronnie’s mandolin and played it in the studio there. Ronnie’s got a couple good mandolins. Bluegrass is more popular now than it ever has been. When I was with Bill Monroe, he was a member of the Grand Ole Opry and he was the big chief, but all the bluegrass bands were actually struggling pretty hard back then. Now it’s a lot easier for them – they can get busses and travel just like that.

It’s been cool to see it evolve.

Yeah, it’s got more popularity. Back when I heard it, I didn’t realize how local this music was. I heard Earl Scruggs when he was about forty and man, he was cranking [laughs] and I thought, I wanna do what that guy’s doing. I learned to play the banjo and played it ten years – that’s how I got my job with Bill Monroe. Then when I got with Bill, he needed a guitar player and lead singer. He said ‘I want you to do that’ and I thought, you’re crazy. I didn’t say it but I thought he was crazy, but I thought, well it’s a challenge, I guess I’ll try it. But I never seriously went back to playing banjo. I got a job with a band in California for a little while, but soon I went right back to playing guitar.

So banjo wasn’t for you?

Well, when I got my own band I thought, you know, it’s a lot easier if I play the guitar because I’m going to be doing most of the singing, and I’ll be singing the verses and when it comes to the chorus – I’ve gotta do the tenor part because I can’t get a good tenor singer – so I was singing two parts, MCing the band, and playing rhythm to keep the band together. So, I thought I’m better off playing guitar, and that’s kind of the way things happen. It was a “because I have to” situation.

I hope you keep touring Del because you’re still blowing minds out there.

I can keep up with those young guys yet!

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2 Responses

  1. Great stuff. Am a huge DelHead – and the whole family. Hope to make a concert when healthy. You did a great job with this interview. If I ever grow up – I’m 80 – I want to be a man like Del!
    Ed Fuchs

  2. Love the new album. It came in the mail yesterday, listened to it twice already. Can’t wait for Delfest ! Been to all of them. First saw Del & the boys at Gettysburg sometime in the late 90’s, been a fan ever since. Blows my mind to think of Jerry as a Bluegrass Boy. Love The McCourys, First Famly of Bluegrass.

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