There are a few incontrovertible truths in life: First base is 90 feet from home plate, Martin Van Buren was the eighth president, and Del McCoury is the coolest cat in America. After all, the septuagenarian is one of music's most admired elder statesmen, counting Elvis Costello, Bjork, and Richard Thompson among his many devotees. 2009 marks McCoury's 50th year in music, and what better way to celebrate than by releasing a box set full of handpicked tracks many of which were rerecorded for this project from each stage of his prodigious career? Born in York, Pennsylvania, in 1939, Del's spent the last 50 years living the musician's life described in his song 'Never Grow Up Boy': 'Don't ever let it be said, darlin'/That what I do don't bring me joy/Climb in the seat beside my Martin/'Cause I'm a guitar pickin', bluegrass singin'/Never grow up boy.' Somewhere in all these years he and his eponymous band have won a truckload of awards, built a fanbase composed of everyone from bluegrass purists to sandal-wearing hippies (thanks to his spellbinding live performances), and even founded his own label-as well as the annual DelFest bluegrass festival.
Originally a banjo player, McCoury switched to guitar during his short tenure with Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys as lead singer in 1963; Monroe's lineup at the time, featuring McCoury and Bill (Brad) Keith on banjo, was probably the strongest roster he'd fielded since the days of Flatt, Scruggs, and fiddler Chubby Wise two decades prior. After leaving Monroe, McCoury returned home, working various jobs to support his young family while playing music part time with his new band, The Dixie Pals. These years are represented on Disc 1 with new takes on classics such as 'Are You Teasing Me,' 'Dark Hollow' and 'White House Blues,' in addition to originals 'Dreams' and Grateful Dead favorite 'Rain and Snow.'
In the early 1980s, Del's teenage son Ronnie joined the Dixie Pals as the group's mandolin player; brother Rob came on as the banjo picker soon after. Renamed The Del McCoury Band, the family would take Nashville by storm with its high energy music and downhome charm. Many years (and 36 IBMA awards) later, Del and the boys in addition to current sidemen Jason Carter (winner of multiple Fiddle Player of the Year awards) and bassist Alan Bartram are still on top of the bluegrass world. This journey is well represented on the final four discs of the box set, which features classics such as 'Nashville Cats,' 'Pick Me Up On Your Way Down' and excellent murder ballad 'Blackjack County Chains.' Disc Five is a collection of The Del McCoury Band's most beloved tracks of the past decade, including fan favorites 'All Aboard' and '1952 Vincent Black Lightning.'
The quintet's live show is really something that must be experienced and not just by fans of bluegrass/roots music but if by some chance Del's gang doesn't come by your neck of the woods too often, these five CDs are an acceptable, if costly, substitute.
My one quibble about this box set is the way it is composed. It's a five disc set in which each 10-song disc represents a decade in McCoury's musical history. While this arrangement does give the set a definite sense of McCoury's timeline as a musician, five discs for fewer than three hours of music is, well, a little bloated. Luckily this minor sin is rectified by the extensive liner notes, featuring letters from Ronnie and Rob to their father as well as numerous photographs.
For a DelHead, this is essential listening: The new recordings of his older work are a joy to listen to, full of vigor and loaded to the gills with that high lonesome sound edged with innovation. In the span of five discs, we're able to hear where McCoury's been, and where he's going. For the Del novice, it's a fine introduction to the music of one of bluegrass' best. Let's hope for another 50 years of McCoury magic.