No Joke: The Del McCoury Band Is Back

The Del McCoury Band performs on Grand Ole Opry Live Saturday (Aug. 23) at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CMT.

Where there’s bluegrass, there’s Del McCoury.

PBS taped a bluegrass special a few months ago, and McCoury was there. The Ryman Auditorium hosted a series of bluegrass concerts this summer, and McCoury was there. The Down From the Mountain tour brought bluegrass to the masses last summer, and McCoury was there. When the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) handed out its awards last year, he was there, dedicating his seventh entertainer of the year trophy to his newest grandchild.

So it’s a little bit weird to see McCoury — who’s usually dressed to the nines on stage in true bluegrass fashion — wearing a pale blue, short-sleeved shirt, hanging out with his son Ronnie at their publicist’s office. Told that they’re hardly recognizable without their suit jacket, they laugh and laugh.

In fact, they cut up throughout the first few minutes of mostly serious questions. They chuckle about how they just toss demo CDs in a box until they can listen to them all at once, even though they get hundreds of them on the road. They are highly amused that T Bone Burnett — the mastermind behind the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack — called the Del McCoury Band the best rock ‘n’ roll band of all time. Finally, they laugh about the good kind of paperwork — endorsing and cashing the royalty checks — involved in self-releasing their new album It’s Just the Night.

The comfort level that matters the most, though, is the companionship within the band. Del takes lead vocals and guitar, with Rob McCoury on banjo and Ronnie on mandolin. Mike Bub carries the bass and Jason Carter takes the fiddle. It’s been the same configuration for the last 11 years.

“When we walk on stage, we don’t have a program,” Del McCoury says. “We don’t have any idea about what we’re going to do. If you’ve got new musicians, you would have to write out a program. If I name something I recorded 30 years ago, these guys know that stuff better than I do. I’m afraid I’ll forget the words to some of the songs people request. The band knows what to do. That’s the advantage.”

Yes, the band still takes requests.

“They all holler out at the same time, and you can’t make out any of it,” he says with a laugh. “I tell you what happened lately. I don’t remember where this was. We do so many different songs and this one song, I couldn’t think of the second verse, whatever it was. This guy in the audience hollers out something, and I said, ‘What’s that?’ He starts singing it for me and I say, ‘Sing it!’ He sings the whole verse, word-for-word right on key and in time and everything. And then when he got done, we sang the chorus.”

That easygoing vibe is part of the reason that, at age 64, McCoury is considered one of the coolest guys in any genre of music. The Del McCoury Band can pack them to the walls at Battery Park in New York City or spend a week teaching their craft at the Rockygrass Academy in Lyons, Colo. Jam bands like Phish and String Cheese Incident revere them, while hard-core bluegrass fans adore them.

“You’ve got all kinds,” Ronnie McCoury says about the band’s audience. “We play rock clubs, we play theaters, we play rock festivals and folk festivals, and we’re lucky to be able to do all that.”

Del McCoury was born in Bakersville, N.C., on Feb. 1, 1939. His father moved the family to southeastern Pennsylvania in the early 1940s. Inspired by a Flatt & Scruggs album as a child, Del picked up the banjo and then joined Jack Cooke’s Virginia Mountain Boys in Baltimore. (Incidentally, Cooke is being honored with a Distinguished Achievement Award by the IBMA this year.) In 1963, McCoury joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, switching from banjo to guitar and vocals. A year later he moved to California but returned to Pennsylvania in 1968. With Rob and Ronnie now in the band, he moved to Nashville in 1992 and hired Carter and Bub.

Though some country fans might associate bluegrass music with the smooth vocals of Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent, McCoury’s voice is steeped in the mountains, and once you’ve heard it, there’s never any mistaking it in the future. An instrument in its own right, McCoury’s tenor can wrap itself around even the most unusual tunes.

For example, take “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” which won the IBMA song of the year in 2002. Written by British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson, the song is about the deadly combination of a tempting redheaded vixen and a mighty nice motorcycle. Ronnie McCoury says that it gets a standing ovation at every show. Meanwhile, on the new album, “It’s Just the Night” provides a spooky interpretation of bluegrass, with the gospel group the Fairfield Four lending chilling harmonies.

Even though McCoury is widely credited as one of the artists responsible for the excitement in bluegrass, not everybody can get caught up in the moment.

“The funniest thing that I have ever seen, and it’s bound to happen at a show. … You’ll see a guy sitting with his wife out there and he’s doing this,” McCoury says, pretending to doze off. “Here we are singing and playing and that guy’s going to sleep! But you know, he’s been up all night and all day, and I realize that. For some people, music soothes the beast, and next thing you know …” McCoury pretends to doze off again, then perks up and declares, “It’s so funny!”