"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."
Likewise, McCoury found it difficult to fathom Monroe himself. He does not dispute Monroe's reputation as a legendary taskmaster, but he maintains that the man he knew was more complicated than the one sketched in music-history books. "You knew he meant business just by him not saying anything," says McCoury. "And when he did say something, I never knew if he was kidding or if he was serious. If somebody messed up really bad, he might say something in a teasing way, but you didn't know if he was teasing or not. You'd definitely hear something about it, though." He chuckles before adding, "He was a hard worker. He was raised on a farm, too, and he had a work ethic--and he hated lazy people. That was the main thing about Bill: If you were willing to work, he was with you, but if you weren't willing to work, he was completely, 100 percent against you. But I got along with him okay, because I don't think I ever caused him much pain. And I think he must've heard something in my singing that he liked."
Little wonder: McCoury's throat is one of the treasures of contemporary bluegrass music. The term "high lonesome" could have been minted for him; his keening is thin, astringent and frequently hits the stratosphere. On "Blue Darlin'," from The Cold Hard Facts, he starts out at a fairly standard pitch, but he soon ratchets up the emotion of the composition via vocal solos and declarations made in harmony with son Ronnie. The notes he unleashes seem capable of piercing the clouds and causing a sad, gentle rain to fall.
Given that bluegrass is a genre that seems to value instrumental virtuosity over everything else, the acclaim McCoury has received for his singing comes as something of a surprise, even to the vocalist himself. "I can't see it personally," he says, "but other people see things that you don't, probably. But I do like to sing. It's a challenge for me. You sing every day on stage, and that's where you work at it. A lot of the songs that I've recorded over the years--I go back and listen to them, and they don't even sound like me. I guess you change without realizing it, because every day you feel a little different and you sing a little different. That's why I'm continuously working on things, trying to get better."
Such persistence has kept McCoury going through the decades. After a year in Monroe's employ, McCoury moved to California to appear on a weekly television show, Worthington Dodge. Only five months later, he returned to Pennsylvania and took a job at a sawmill to support his growing family. But the bluegrass bug proved impossible to shake. He began playing music on the weekends, and by the Seventies he was leading a band on a full-time basis. The project became a family affair in 1981, when fourteen-year-old Ronnie joined up--and Rob followed suit six years later.
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This combination of young blood and tradition has proven to be a potent combination. McCoury's group now has five albums on Rounder, including the sterling 1993 release A Deeper Shade of Blue, and has dominated the International Bluegrass Music Association awards of late. Among the numerous citations received by the musicians are three consecutive Entertainer of the Year nods and individual nominations for each bandmember in both 1996 and 1997. The pickers and plunkers excel in part because McCoury gives them the opportunity to do so. "If you don't change things, hey, you're going to get bored," he points out. "You'll get so sick of a song that you won't want to do it anymore. So I've never told them, 'You've got to play exactly what we've recorded.' When something happens during a break and it turns out different, I encourage them; I say, 'Remember that.' They know there's a framework that they have to stay in--they can't lose the melody. But there's a lot of things you can do with a melody without losing it."
The fire the McCourys unleash live has made the band one of bluegrass's most popular touring acts. Crowds have become larger and more disparate; plenty of young people, many of them current or former punk rockers, are now part of the mix. McCoury also hears the influence of bluegrass in the work of many country stars, particularly the ones (like Vince Gill and Marty Stuart) who have a background in the music. "Of course, they get on a major label, and then they have to sort of change the music to suit the label," he says. "And that's fine for them. Everybody's different. But I like to do things the way I like to do them. That's just the way I am."
The Del McCoury Band. 8 p.m. Thursday, February 19, Boulder Theater, 2034 14th Street, $15, 786-7030.