By Michael Scott Cain | Special to The News-Post | Jan 20, 2016
Del McCoury might have been born in Pennsylvania, and he’s chosen to live in Nashville, but he has Maryland roots that go back a long way. In fact, he started his career playing bars in Baltimore, up U.S. 1 and out U.S. 40.
“Baltimore was pretty hot back in the ‘50s. It was a hot place for bluegrass,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Nashville. “A lot of people came up from Tennessee and Georgia and Alabama to work during the war in the shipyards, in the steel mills and aircraft factories, and we played for them. They loved mountain music. A lot of local people loved it, too, and we played for them.”
He laughed as the memories turned into stories — and Del McCoury, in his many years playing music, has a lot of stories to tell.
He went into the story of how the first bluegrass concert in Carnegie Hall came to be. “Earl Taylor was the biggest star. I played with him in a little place called Castle Café, right off of Broadway. I met him in the fish market. There was was a big bar in Fells Point that had country and bluegrass music, two bands, no stopping. When one finished, the other would start up. Earl Taylor was playing there, and a man came in, sat there all night listening. Just had two drinks, and when Earl finished, he went up to him and said, ‘My name’s Alan Lomax, and I’m going to put you boys in Carnegie Hall. Earl said, ‘I’ve heard that before,’ but Lomax actually did it. He got them to make an album for Folkways Records and to play Carnegie Hall. They had a great sound.”
How did McCoury end up playing guitar? He has a story for that, too.
Bill Monroe, the mandolin player credited with inventing bluegrass, was coming through Baltimore in 1963 and needed both a banjo player and a guitar picker. He hired McCoury and put him onstage without even rehearsing. McCoury, having played cover versions of Monroe’s songs, was able to keep up, but after a couple performances, Monroe shocked him by asking him to switch over to guitar and become the lead singer. It turned out to be the right move. He did it, and has never gone back to the banjo.
After almost 10 years with Monroe, McCoury left the band and briefly joined the Golden State Boys in California. When that band broke up, he went back to Pennsylvania and took a job to support his wife and two small sons, confining his musical activities to playing festivals on the weekends.
But by the time they hit their teens, his two sons had become musicians. They became his band, and McCoury decided it was time to move to Nashville and get back to music full-time in the ‘80s. With his son Ronnie on mandolin and his son Robbie on banjo, they have become the Del McCoury Band and are busily and happily rewriting the rules for bluegrass.
The Del McCoury Band recorded nonbluegrass tunes like the British folk-rocker Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” recorded an album with country-folk-rocker Steve Earle and played jam band festivals with Phish, proving that bluegrass is more flexible than people might have thought it was. Their stretching of musical horizons has also made McCoury and his sons one of the most honored bands in bluegrass. In fact, country-bluegrass artist Alison Krauss told the newspaper The Tennessean that McCoury widened the field for everyone. He is, she says, the new Bill Monroe.
McCoury expressed surprise at her comment, which he had not heard. “Alison said that?” he asked and then said he was just lucky to be able to make a living playing bluegrass.
He’ll return to Maryland to perform on Jan. 22 at the Weinberg Center in a concert designed to celebrate the music of Woody Guthrie, America’s finest and foremost composer of folk songs. Long after Guthrie’s death, his daughter, Nora Guthrie, found notebooks of his that were thought to have been long lost. They contained lyrics for songs that remained unfinished because Guthrie had not yet written melodies for them.
Nora gave lyrics to such artists as Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello and Natalie Merchant, asking them to write tunes to match the lyrics and to record the finished songs. “Nora picked us to do that,” McCoury says. “She said her dad would have loved to have a band like ours. She offered us 20 songs. We worked the songs up and made demos of them. One day, I’m listening to them and really got into them. ... We’ve been playing them at shows and at first we didn’t know them, didn’t know how to perform them, but they always went over well. We’ve got them down right now.
“They’re very special songs, from 1935 to 1949. Some of them are in his own handwriting. The songs last. You could do some of them 100 years from now. He’d write about that day, whatever day it was. He wrote comical, smart, about being down and out, everything. He’s even got a song about women’s hats. He was in New York City, and he’d never seen stuff like that before. That’s what he did — he wrote down what he saw.”
The first half of the show will feature songs with Guthrie’s lyrics, and after an intermission, the Del McCoury Band will perform classic songs from its own repertoire.
Del McCoury still feels a kinship with this area. His bluegrass festival, Delfest, is held annually in Cumberland, and he’s played a lot in Frederick, “even though I’ve driven through it more than I’ve played here.” Playing Frederick is “like coming home,” he said.
A practicing poet who teaches literature at Frederick Community College, Michael Scott Cain also writes essays and music and book criticism for various magazines. He has published three novels, three nonfiction studies and six poetry chapbooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.