Del McCoury: 50 Years of Playing Music

From Bill Monroe to Bonnaroo, He's Been There

Editor’s Note: Bluegrass legend Del McCoury recently celebrated his 50th anniversary of playing music. Originally from North Carolina, he joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys as lead singer and guitarist in 1963 (although he was originally hired to play banjo). He left the following year to join the Golden State Boys in California. Subsequently he went back East and worked in logging and construction for a number of years while continuing to play music on the side. His sons Ronnie and Rob began playing with him and he formed the Del McCoury Band. In recent years, the band have become extremely popular at non-bluegrass festivals and he has worked extensively with groups such as Phish. He recently spoke with about some of his experiences.

What was it like working for Bill Monroe? I’ve heard interesting stories.

McCoury: You know as far as a hard job, I had had a lot harder jobs before that. I got along good with Bill. I never did aggravate him or I never questioned him about anything. He was kind of a moody guy. Really moody and there would be days when he would say nothing. I mean he’d ride in the car and wouldn’t speak to nobody. I’d be sitting right beside him, and I wouldn’t say a word to him either until he spoke. He would ride for hours and hours, or days, and wouldn’t say a word to nobody. We’d go onstage and play the show, but he never told me, “Now, look, sing this like this or play your guitar like this.” He never told me nothing like that. It kind of worried me. I thought, I wonder if I am doing it right. But Bill knew. I think he sang to his lead singers. Because he was a tenor singer, you know? And all through the years he had these great lead singers — with the exception of me. (laughs) He harmonized with them, and I didn’t realize that when I was working with him. I would try to harmonize with him. I figured out that I was a tenor singer when I went to work with Bill. I had to learn how to hit lower notes, and I really liked working for him. I should have stayed longer, but I was offered a job in this band in California called the Golden State Boys. And they had a TV show and I figured that’s pretty big.

When you joined the Blue Grass Boys, you came in on banjo, but he converted you to guitar?

Yeah. I’ll tell you what. I was playing banjo with Jack Cooke. I had played for about 10 years, and I thought I was really good.

Did you teach yourself to play the Scruggs style?

Yeah. We didn’t have instruction tapes or nothing back in those days. I learned to play from listening to him on record. I didn’t get to see Earl Scruggs until about ’55, and when I saw him then, I could tell what he was doing because I had learned to play with a backward roll, the wrong way. It happens to every kid I guess. Nowadays it’s so good because they get to see people up close and they can learn right from the start the right way to do it. Well, I had to change all that and then I got pretty good.

How did you first meet Bill Monroe?

I was playing with Jack [Cooke] one night, and Monroe came in that little bar and sat down. I really didn’t know that he was coming. I thought, you know that man looks like Bill Monroe. He even has a hat like Bill Monroe. So after the show was over I found out it was Bill. Jack hadn’t told me that he was coming. He offered me a job that night playing. By the time I took the job, he had heard [banjo player] Bill Keith. And Bill Keith played something new and different. Bill Keith and I both got here in town about the same day, and Monroe told me, “I’ll get you a room down at the Clarkston Hotel [in Nashville] on 7th Avenue. Then call me.” I called and he said, “Yeah, I’ll be down there in 10 minutes.” Well, he come by himself and he was driving, that Oldsmobile station wagon. In the lobby I saw this other fella standing there with a banjo, too. I had one in my hand and he had one in his hand. We started talking to each other when Bill Monroe walked in and he said, “Boys, come on, let’s go in here and eat a bite.” There was a restaurant next door. We went in there and sat down to eat and I thought this is funny, this is a funny deal here. Anyway, we ate and he paid for our breakfast. Then he said, “Follow me, boys,” and he walked out and up the sidewalk and up in the National Life Building. We went up to a room, and he said “Dale, get that guitar there.” He didn’t call me Del, he called me Dale. And I thought, man, I wonder how he even knows if I can play the guitar — which was the first thing I learned how to play when I was about 9. So I got the guitar out, and there was a pick in it, so I said, “Let’s play one.” We played something. I have no idea what it was, but I followed along with him. So he said, “Now team, I need a lead singer and a guitar player in the worst way,” which he probably did. So I guess he went through everybody. He says, “I’ll try you out, but I got to get Bill Keith in the union because I got some instrumentals I want to record with him.” And he did right away too, like in the next day or two. So in about a week or something, he got me in the union. That way I could play on the Grand Ole Opry with him.

After all these years, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen first in country music and second in bluegrass?

Wow, let’s see. Back when I was a kid, country guys sounded different from each other. Now, there’s a lot of guys that I think sound a lot alike. I can kind of tell who they are but
back then with Hank Williams and Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe, Carl Smith, those guys all sounded so different, didn’t they? Yeah, you knew who they were. As soon as you heard them, you knew exactly who they were. And of course it was kind of that same way, too, in bluegrass. All the bands sounded different. Mac Wiseman was so different from, you know, Don Reno. I noticed things changing in bluegrass when Carlton Haney started that festival in ’65 in Fincastle [Virginia. It was the first multi-day bluegrass festival.] I relate a lot to Carlton because I was the first non-professional musician that that he gave a break to. He started letting me play his festivals and I owe a lot to him. From that I got to play in a lot of other places too. But anyway, when I noticed these new blue grass bands, like the New Deal String Band in Carolina, they were really out there, boy. Of course Sam Bush, when he got his band, that was really progressive bluegrass. That’s kind of when bluegrass made a change. Of course I like to listen to those guys. I just couldn’t picture myself doing that.

When did you first learn that the Bonnaroo audience and the Phish audiences were ready for you?

(Laughs) I don’t think they are yet. You know, it’s funny what happened with me is that some of those jam guys come to shows that I’ve played. There were actually bluegrass shows all over the country, especially in Colorado and up in New England. I’ve played up there and in New York City. I played up on a ship in New York City at the South Street Seaport. The Phish guys, they come to shows that I played and then they recorded a song of mine and put it on their live record, and after they did that, they wanted us to come and play at their festivals. So we went up there and played, and there were 77,000 at that place. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what to expect. That might have been the first jam band festival that I ever played. So I met Trey, Trey Anastasio, and he said, “Oh, what can we sing together? Do you know ’Blue & Lonesome'”? And there were a bunch of those hardcore bluegrass songs and he knew them, man. He is a great guitar picker. And then through that I met the String Cheese Incident. We played a lot of shows up there in Colorado. And then the Back Door Slam — we did a tour with those guys. And then the Yonder Mountain String Band — we did a festival out there in Oregon, and we’re playing there this year again. It’s funny how things work out that you go play at these places. You wonder how you ever got there. But you know, the first time we played Bonnaroo, I was really surprised because they requested our songs.

They knew your songs?

They sure did. Oh, the tent filled up, and they just were way out from under that tent, and it was so loud under there. They would hold their requests up on a piece of paper where they had written it out because if they hollered, you couldn’t hear them. And I thought, these kids know what we did. It really felt good. I played the Fillmore West out there in Frisco. And I played the Roxy in Hollywood and the place is packed. When I played the Fillmore West, this guy that promoted the show there, he said, “You know the last band to play in here?” And I said no. “Last bluegrass band was Flatt & Scruggs when they had the Beverly Hillbillies record.” That was the last bluegrass band to play the Fillmore. So there you go, those guys paved the way for us.