Though he’s one of the most popular singers in contemporary bluegrass music, Del McCoury has been trying to work less — but that doesn’t mean he’s taking it easy. In this recent interview with CMT.com, he answers fans’ questions about a gospel collection, a concert DVD and why his ticket prices are on the rise. Also taking a cue from the title of his band’s new album — The Company We Keep — McCoury recalls meeting Dierks Bentley at a bluegrass festival, discusses the “little conflict” with Steve Earle and explains how Earl Scruggs’ banjo picking changed his life.
1. I love watching you guys perform and how you often take requests throughout your show. Do you decide the set list before you go out on stage, or do you use the same set list over a period time? Or is it different for every town?
We never know what we’re gonna do and have no set list. It’s just whatever comes, comes. We don’t do the same show every night. … We’ll go on stage and the first four songs are to introduce the band. I don’t know what they’re gonna do either. But I’ll introduce them, and when I do introduce them, they’ll come up and do whatever it is they’re gonna do. Then from that time, I try to do some of the new songs from our album. But at the same time, while I’m doing those, I’ll just say, “Well now folks, if you got any requests, just wait a few minutes. I want to do you a couple of these songs we have.” I never know which one of those I’m gonna do either. (laughs)
But anyway, they’ll start requesting songs and from that point on, it’s just hectic. You don’t know what’s gonna happen. I’ll just do whatever they request because you can always figure they paid to get in. If they want you to sing a certain song or play a certain song, you should be able to do that for them, even if you want to, don’t want to or if you want to do something new.
2. What are your favorite songs to perform?
I have no favorites, so it don’t make no difference to me what I do. … I like variety in songs and, I guess, in anything. So therefore, I don’t have a favorite. I think if I had a favorite, I’d probably play it until I got sick of it. So I just don’t have any. (laughs)
3. What made you decide to play bluegrass music? You don’t hear that kind of music every day like you do country.
Back in the day when I started, bluegrass was actually just thrown right in there with country or hillbilly or whatever they called it. There was not too much separation back in those days. It was mainly called “hillbilly music” in the ’50s when I was growing up. They would play Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe. Flatt & Scruggs were just starting. All those guys together, and they didn’t even have a name for bluegrass. It was just Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys doing a song.
Then again, I’m at that age where Elvis Presley hit big while I was in high school and most kids always go for something new. But I’d already heard Earl Scruggs play. There wasn’t anybody like Earl Scruggs to me. That’s what I did back then. I learned to play banjo, and I played it until I went with Bill Monroe, to sing lead with him. That’s probably the reason I chose what I’m doing — because of Earl Scruggs in the beginning. I learned to play the banjo, and that just ruined me for life.
4. Who is the greatest star that you’ve ever shared a stage with?
I’ve thought about that and I would have to say Bill Monroe. I worked for him for a year, and I really learned to realize then just what a great musician and singer and writer he was. He kind of formed a music. It’s hard for us to see anybody today that invented a style of music, but he did. If it was accidental, it don’t matter. He did it! (laughs) I have to say, it was such a training ground for so many musicians. … I think he liked taking on new musicians and singing with them and playing with them. I think he really enjoyed that. He was not only a bandleader and great musician and singer. He was a training ground for other musicians.
5. I would like to know why your price for concerts is so high now. You’re still in bluegrass — and not country — so don’t get up above bluegrassers.
I’ve had a lot of the fans come to my shows since we were young, since I was young with them. They still come to my shows, and I don’t plan to get above them, but I’ll tell you about the price. We told my manager, “We’re just working too much,” so my manager and my booking agent said, “Well, to slow this thing down, we’ll just raise the price again.” They kept doing it for a long time now, but it don’t seem to slow it down. … This year, we turned down 50 percent of the dates that came in to the booking agent. That’s a mystery to me. I know a lot of folks who are struggling.
I tried it years and years without a manager or a real booking agent or a publicist. We have all that now: a publicist and a tax lawyer and all that. It takes a team to do anything, and it’s hard for young bands to get that big team together, to make the big machine move — especially with bluegrass because it’s not that popular of music. It’s not like country and rock, but it’s my favorite.
6. Did you write the song, “Let an Old Racehorse Run”? If not, who did? It’s an awesome song.
Thanks for that. The [songwriter’s] name is Ron Smith. There’s a little story about that song, if we’ve got time. I was coming home from the Opry one night. (This is before I belonged to the Opry.) We played the Opry, and I heard Eddie Stubbs doing a late show down there on the radio from over there at the [Opryland] Hotel. He had Tommy Cash in there with him, which is Johnny’s brother. They were playing some of Tommy’s stuff, and he played this one song, “Let an Old Racehorse Run.” I thought, “Man, I love that song.” But it slipped my mind for the next record. I didn’t even think about it.
But we went to do another record a year later, and I said to Eddie Stubbs at the Opry, “Hey man, do you have a copy of that song?” He said, “Man, I don’t even remember that song!” He was just playing Tommy Cash stuff. Anyway, Tommy Cash lives here in Hendersonville, Tenn. Somehow we got word to him that we’d like to record that song, and he dropped it off at the studio while we were gone one time and in between us cutting there. That’s how come I did it. I learned it in a day, I think, and recorded it that very evening.
7. Are there any plans for a gospel collection?
Yes. … I’ve done a lot of gospel things through the years on my records. It all amounts to quite a few, but I’ve never put out a gospel record. That’s what I want to do next.
8. Will you ever film a concert DVD?
This summer, we’re planning on doing a DVD and have it out by Christmas, so we’ve got a lot of work to do this year.
9. Is there any possibility you may play banjo on stage again?
Wow! Years ago, back in the ’60s, I had a band. We were all about the same age. Me, I was an ex-banjo player, and I had a banjo player by the name of Bill Runkle, and I had a mandolin player by the name of Donnie Eldreth, and we all three were banjo players. When we’d get on stage, we’d all three play the banjo and switch the instruments. I think the last time I did it was the ’60s. (laughs) I don’t even know if I could play one. I don’t have one here at home because my son Rob has my old one at his house. I’ve got to tell him to bring that home. I need to play that thing. (laughs). I had an old 1934 model Gibson that I played. I should keep up on it because at one time I was good banjo player. That’s how I got my job with Bill Monroe. But he didn’t want me to play banjo then. He wanted me to sing and play guitar because that’s what he needed. (laughs) I guess it was a question of economics at the time.
10. A lot of times in bluegrass, musicians seem to be able to play every instrument, even if it’s not their specialty. Why is that?
That happens a lot with musicians, although the guitar and the banjo are about the only ones that I really can play. But there are some young guys that can play anything these days, man. It’d surprise you death. They can play fiddle, mandolin, banjo, bass, guitar, Dobro, anything.
11. I have noticed your sons do not have Southern accents. Where were they raised?
We were all raised in Pennsylvania. My parents were fresh from North Carolina when I was born. I guess I probably kept that from them, and it’s kinda watered down. York County, Pa., that’s where my sons grew up. I was raised there, myself, but the musicians I played with through the years, a lot of them were from the South, also. I’ve probably kept some of that, but I know I can hear a lot of Pennsylvania Dutch in what I say sometimes because where we lived was all Pennsylvania Dutch. … Lancaster County is the next one over, and it’s thicker with the Pennsylvania Dutch than York County. But both those counties have big farms. I grew up on a farm, myself, on a big dairy farm.
12. Ronnie is a great mandolin player. What brand of mandolin does he play?
He plays a Gilchrist. I think it’s around a 1980 model or something like that. It’s a great mandolin. [Steve] Gilchrist is a builder, and he’s probably the first guy to build a mandolin that comes up to the quality of those old Lloyd Loars that Gibson built in the ’20s. That’s what Ronnie plays. He’s got a good one, too. It really comes out. It’s a loud instrument and plus it’s got great tone.
13. How did you meet Dierks Bentley?
It’s funny. I remember playing in Telluride, Colo., and Dierks was there. My fiddle player, Jason Carter, and Dierks knew each other somehow. I guess Dierks just went for the festival. It was before he actually had a band or anything. They rode back together. Dierks had his truck out there, and Jason said, “Well, I’m gonna ride back with Dierks.” They were pretty young. That’s how I met him, through Jason.
14. What’s it like having your sons play in the band, and also what effect do you think their musical influences have been on your music and current success?
It’s great having those guys in the band because they’re really great instrumentalists and singers, especially Ronnie. It’s probably more than I could ask for. A lot of times, there are family bands, but sometimes all the musicians are not all that good in the family. I’m fortunate that these guys are really top notch on what they do, and so are Mike Bub and Jason Carter. [Editor’s note: Bub has since left the band.]
Myself, I was narrow-minded when I was growing up because all I wanted to hear was Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs, anything bluegrass. Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, the Osborne Brothers, Jim & Jesse and all those guys back in those days. These guys, I’m sure they heard other music, too, as they were growing up. It’s probably influenced their playing some. But they still play in a traditional style on their instruments, even though I’m sure they’re more influenced by Southern rock than anything. I know they used to play Hank Jr. They played those guys from Florida — Lynyrd Skynyrd, is it?
There were a lot of young mandolin players when Ronnie started. I said, “Now, they’re all good, but if you want to listen to the teacher, you need to listen to Bill Monroe because he invented the bluegrass style of mandolin playing.” I don’t think there was a mandolin before that. (laughs) They had those mandolin orchestras back in the ’20s, but Bill Monroe was probably the first to play rhythm on a mandolin. I said, “You need to listen to him if you’re gonna learn to play the mandolin.” And I told Rob, “You need to listen to Earl Scruggs because he’s the one. He’s the genius on the banjo.” So they did.
As far as influence, I’m sure they influenced me somehow. It’s hard for me to say how because I usually decide what it is that I’m going to record. They’ll bring me stuff, and it always has to suit me. I have to be able to know whether I would like to sing that song forever or not. That’s how I get things. I get songs from so many different directions.
15. What is the story behind the McCoury Music logo? A similar flower that you used for your music label logo was used on the Del and the Boys CD. I also remember seeing this same type flower on your Opry induction cake.
Erick Anderson did some photo shoots for our CDs in the last six years or so. We play around one microphone. We have an Audio-Technica 4033 that we use, and it picks up from all directions really well. A lot of times, we’ll be bunched up around that microphone, maybe even all five of us. For something like “Nashville Cats,” we’ll all get around that one. Eric said, “It reminds me of a lily” — because these petals come out and they come down and they’re all tied together when we’re at one microphone. That’s where they came up with the logo. I remember him saying that, and then we all got together and we all agreed on it.
16. I have always wondered why you all share the one microphone stand. You seem to have it coordinated so well. Do you ever run into each other?
Oh, yeah! (laughs) We get close, but for the most part, we never do. That’s something we never rehearse. We just started using the one. … Even if you’ve got your own sound man, he’ll slip up and he’ll have the wrong microphone turned up. I thought to simplify matters, we’ll just all use this one microphone, then come in and take your break in there. Then you know you’re the one that’s ahead or over the top of the rest of the band. No matter who’s in that microphone, they’re going to be a little louder than anybody behind them. It’s just like you mix your own show. That’s really why we did it. It’s a way that we used to do it when I was coming up with Bill Monroe back in those days. That’s the way we always did it. You had to have some pretty fancy footwork sometimes to get in and out of there. (laughs) But you knew when you got up to the microphone that you were going to be heard, and that you were supposed to be there.
17. Has there ever been a time that you were truly about to give up? What kept you hanging on?
I never thought about giving up. … I was different than probably a lot of people. I played music from the time I could ever remember just because I loved to play music. I never was money-oriented. I never thought about money. But I realized that when I started having a family, that you have to have money. It’s one of those dirty things you have to have! (laughs)
Anyway, I was never playing it because I thought, “Oh now, I’ve gotta to make a living doing this and I’ve gotta have this plan.” I just played it because I liked it and that’s why I played it up until I got married. When I got married, I thought, “Now I’ve gotta have a little bit of stability here.” So I got a job when we started having a family. My wife worked, too, while the kids were all growing up.
See, the thing about it is, I never quit playing because it’s what I liked to do, so I’d do it on the weekends. Then, here the kids are, all grown up, and we decided, “We’ll just quit our jobs and see what’ll happen.” Everything just got better from that point on.
So, the answer is no. I never did think about giving up because I loved it so much, and I still do. It’s a big part of me. That’s crazy, but it is. I’ve got two brothers, and they both are great musicians and singers, too. My brother Jerry, he’s working a day job and he plays in a band, too, and he plays a lot, too. But my oldest brother, the one we learned from, he was never interested that much to play full time. He liked a day job. He likes to play in his spare time. His name is G.C. That’s the one I learned to play guitar from.
18. In March of 1999, I was lucky enough to see you in New York City with Steve Earle and met you and Ronnie afterward. That was great! I know the tour was cut short. What is your relationship with Steve now?
I guess after we did the tours, we never did see each other any more. Now, I did see Steve this year at Merlefest. He was there, but he said he wasn’t playing. I talked to him a little bit. But we had a little conflict on the tour. (laughs) I guess that happens once in a while. But I never knew Steve until I went on tour with him. He’s a great songwriter, Steve is. He wrote that whole record [1999’s The Mountain] in record time. We recorded it, and he wrote some of the best songs for that record. I think that’s really his strong point — being able to write.
We did a tour after the record was released. There’s a reason we decided to tour together. By the time his came out, I had recorded one and it was out. It came out a little faster than his did, so we had these two records, and we toured with them. We toured about 30 days here and about 30 days over in Europe. But then, they added extra dates while we were touring in Europe. I told him, “I don’t want to do any more because of my schedule.” I had my own dates that I wanted to do, and it was cutting into my summer season. I just didn’t want to do those out on the West Coast. But he got a van and went out and did those. But it was OK. It was OK, but I would rather be touring with my own band and my own songs and all that. (laughs)
19. I’m a huge fan of yours. I’m 14, and I live far away in Italy. I heard you’ve been in Europe several times. Are you planning a European tour?
We’re not. Or no, wait a minute. My manager and my booking agent are talking about overseas stuff. I like to stay here because there are so many good places to play here. But I guess it’s important to go over there. I know they’re talking about it, but I don’t know how far along they’ve come with it. I know they know I’m dragging my feet, but they’re going to put us overseas sooner or later. (laughs) I would love to play in Italy. I’ve never played there. I’ve played France, Switzerland and Germany, almost all the free countries in Europe, but we missed Italy somehow. I don’t know how that was, but I’d like to go there.
20. What do you see of the future for bluegrass music?
I see a bright future for it, even though right now the flower is wilting a little bit on bluegrass. I’ve learned this through my manager. He keeps up with all this stuff. But for us, man, we’re turning down 50 percent of the dates we get it. I think a lot of that is management. With a lot of the young bands, it’s tough for them to get going and get started. It’s really hard for me to judge anything about this because we’re in the position now where we don’t have to worry much about anything, just trying to slow down because I’m 66 now. (laughs)
The music is just such a great art form. I see it in my mind as really a bright future for this music. Anybody that decides to start playing this music or sing in this music, all they have is a little wooden instrument. They don’t have all these electronics to depend on. They’ve got to get it out of whatever it is they’re playing. They can’t depend on the tuning things on stage. They can’t hide behind nothing, buddy. They’ve got to be good at what they do when they get up on that stage! (laughs) I think it’s a great art form, and I see a bright future for it.