Color Him Bluegrass

Del McCoury is one of the masters of a great American art form.

"Our audiences are smaller than, say, country's or rock's," concedes Del McCoury, as exciting and authentic a bluegrass performer as any presently drawing breath. "And I'm sure a lot of bluegrass people would like to get more coverage or popularity. But I kind of enjoy it this way--because I've been fortunate throughout my recording career to record songs I wanted to do, and to do exactly what I want to do when I get on stage. And I'm sure that if I was on a major label, I couldn't do that. I'm almost positive of that."

McCoury, who records for Rounder Records, delivers these comments in an almost impossibly musical manner; his lilting voice rises and swoops like a hummingbird trying to attract the attention of a comely mate. But beneath these surface tones lurks a steeliness that's as formidable as McCoury's music. When he's asked if he disdains the giant industry imprints because he doesn't like the idea of sharpies in Italian suits giving him advice, he replies, "They never would tell me what to do." The statement is softened with a laugh, but McCoury, who looks like a genial Old Testament prophet, leaves no doubt that he means every word.

At the same time, McCoury is not an artist afraid of breaking fresh ground. At 59, he admits that "it seems like I've been around forever," but the members of his band (fiddler Jason Carter, bassist Mike Bub and Del's sons Rob McCoury and Ronnie McCoury, on banjo and mandolin, respectively) are all in their early thirties and have no intention of allowing their repertoire to atrophy. McCoury's description of how a version of contemporary bluesman Robert Cray's "Smoking Gun" wound up on his most recent platter, 1996's lively and entertaining The Cold Hard Facts, is a case in point. "We were looking for things to record, and Ronnie, he played that song for me and he said, 'Well, Dad, if you like it, we'll do it, and if you don't, we won't,'" he relates. "And if it hadn't been for him, I never would have heard that song, because I never listen to the radio or anything like that. But I said to him, 'You know, I like that song. I couldn't do it like that guy did, but I really like that song.' So we took it and worked it up our own way, and it worked out pretty good."

So has McCoury's entire career. A native of North Carolina, he grew up on a farm in York County, Pennsylvania. He started singing at a young age, but his musical focus altered when he heard a 78 brought home by his older brother. "His name's G.C., for Grover Cleveland," McCoury reveals. "And he bought a Flatt and Scruggs record when they were just starting out--'Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms.' I don't think they were that popular yet, but it was a fast song, and I could hear the energy in it. And that's what got me started. I may not have even played music if I hadn't heard that record. It sparked something; it just flipped the switch up in my head."

Soon, a banjo was McCoury's constant companion--which made him seem like an odd duck to many of his buddies. "I'm sure there were a lot of other people into country and bluegrass, but I didn't seem to know many of them," he recalls. "You see, Elvis hit it big, and most of the kids I went to school with were Elvis Presley fans or Jerry Lee Lewis fans. They were the big guys, and for a while there, they just about ruined country and bluegrass--even though a lot of those rock guys were bluegrass fans. Bill Monroe played on the mandolin what those rock musicians played on their electric guitars."

A few years later, McCoury would discover this firsthand; Monroe recruited him for his ensemble, the Bluegrass Boys, in early 1963. However, Monroe didn't want McCoury to wield his instrument of choice. "It's a funny thing," he says. "I spent ten years playing the banjo because I heard Earl Scruggs, and that's what I wanted to do. But when I went to work with Bill Monroe, he wanted me to sing and play guitar. He told me, 'I need a lead singer and a guitar player in the worst way--and I'd like to try you out at that if I could.' And I didn't say anything to him about it, because I could play guitar; that was the first thing I learned to do when I was a kid. But that was the last time I'd done it, so it was like starting out brand-new again. And there I was at the Grand Ol' Opry playing all his songs--and he had a lot of songs.

"The guitar in those days was the complete opposite of what it is now. It was strictly a rhythm instrument, while the banjo was a lead instrument. So I never played leads on the guitar. I just had to concentrate on rhythm and runs; I could do runs, and he liked that. But I had to use a flat pick--and since with a banjo you finger-pick, it was a complete difference. I kept losing my pick; it's hard to hang on to your pick when you first start. So him wanting me to play guitar, I never could figure that out."

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