In popular music, the family that plays together rarely stays together. Many of the greatest creative lineagesthe Monroes, the Dorseys, the Louvins, the Everlysform in glorious harmony yet split in bad blood.
But the Del McCoury Band defies this pattern. “I can’t say we’ve ever had an argument,” Ronnie McCoury says. Since his early teens, the mandolinist has toured the country performing with his father Del and his brother Rob. “Dad is such a soft-spoken person. He’s the most easy-going person I’ve ever met. I respect my dad, and I’ve never spoken back to him. We’ve just never had any trouble.”
Their relationship may be easy-going, but their music is anything but. Widely regarded as the most accomplished and most inspired bluegrass band to emerge in the ’90s, the Del McCoury Band creates fiery, focused string-band music packed with feeling. The band was recently awarded bluegrass music’s most prestigious honor, the Entertainer of the Year Award, by the International Bluegrass Music Association. In addition, Ronnie McCoury was named top mandolinist for the fifth consecutive year, while his non-familial bandmates Mike Bub and Jason Carter received respective honors for top bassist and top fiddler.
Now, after years of perfecting his talents, Ronnie McCoury is beginning to emerge as an artist in his own right. But he’s quick to point out that his father never set out to turn him and his brother into musicians. “Dad never pushed us into anything,” he says.
The elder McCoury, a native of North Carolina, started out as a banjo player four decades ago. After spending time in Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys as a vocalist and acoustic guitarist, he eventually moved to Pennsylvania, where he went to work in a sawmill. Even though McCoury abandoned the life of a touring musician to support his family, he continued to play on weekends.
Ronnie grew up surrounded by music, but he didn’t show much interest in it until the age of 13, when his father took him to New York to see Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys perform at Carnegie Hall. What the younger McCoury saw changed his life. “I don’t know if it was how the big spotlight hit Monroe or what, but what I saw was this big guy dominating this instrument, just tearing it up,” McCoury says. “It just clicked and all came together for me. I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
After they returned home, Ronnie’s father showed him how to play an old mandolin that had been lying around the house. The mandolin needed some repair, but Ronnie couldn’t wait: While the instrument was in the shop, he taught himself how to play fiddle. Then, only six months after he first picked up the mandolin, he started to perform with his dad.
“It was kind of a sink-or-swim thing,” he says. “I just chopped away, learning chords and playing rhythm. The youngest guys in the band, other than me, were in their late 30s. I just went with it and had to keep up.”
As for influences, McCoury cites Monroe as his primary inspiration. “I had all his records and learned all his breaks,” he says. “Until I was 16 or 17, I just thought of Bill Monroe only.” Another early influence was Marty Stuart. “He was probably about 18 and playing with Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass when I met him. I was probably only 8 or 9 years old at the time. I really appreciated it, and the fact that he played the mandolin probably helped me think I could play it too.”
Brother Rob McCoury began playing banjo with his father’s band shortly after Ronnie joined in 1981. As with most bluegrass bands, the personnel changed regularly over the years. But for the last six years, it has remained the same, with Carter and Bub filling out the lineup. “It takes a while for everyone to come together as a band and groove,” Ronnie says. “But this band is so strong now. We really know each other so well when we’re onstage.”
Even though the younger McCoury has a growing reputation as a bandleader in his own right, he figures he’ll always play with his father. “It doesn’t get any better than that in bluegrass,” he says. Still, he’s currently working on his first solo album, which follows the 1996 release of Ronnie and Rob McCoury, which found the two brothers sharing lead roles on their first collaborative project. Rob is also beginning work on a solo album of his own.
“I like to do my own thing too,” Ronnie says. “I like to step out a little more and do more of my own material.” On his own albums, he hopes to show off a more adventurous side, bringing in such rock influences as the Grateful Deada band McCoury got to see several times prior to guitarist Jerry Garcia’s untimely death.
For his upcoming album, McCoury has recorded a cut with The Sidemen, a revolving group of young pickers who jam each Tuesday night at the Station Inn. He’s also bringing in such guests as Jerry Douglas, Vassar Clements, and David Grisman. “There are certain tunes that I’ve been wanting to cut with these guys all my life,” he says.
Once he finishes his current project, he hopes to cut a “masters of the mandolin” collection. He’s already talked to such legendary players as Bobby Osborne and Jesse McReynolds, and he’ll recruit some of his favorite young pickers as well.
A new father since the first of the year, Ronnie is now learning to reconcile career and home life. Life on the road, he says, “is all I’ve ever known. Ralph Stanley once said that when he’s home, he don’t feel alive, but on the road he feels alive. It just gets in your blood.” But these days, McCoury is feeling the tug of home more and more. Still, he says, he can’t imagine what his life would be like without music. “You feel different everyday, so you play different everyday,” he observes.
As part of the next generation of bluegrass, McCoury has noticed a growing number of younger fans, who he says are drawn to the music’s intensity and freewheeling spirit. And since Jerry Garcia was himself a bluegrass player and fan, Grateful Dead followers have also been exploring the music. “They need something else to check out,” McCoury says, “and some of them have been turning to the Del McCoury Band.” In fact, he says, some young fans have even taken to calling themselves “Del Heads.” At festivals like the annual Merle Fest in North Carolina, they even have their own unofficial section in the crowd where they dance and hang out.
Meanwhile, the Del McCoury Band has been branching out in other ways as well. The group recently performed on a CBS-TV special commemorating Israel’s 50th birthday; they jammed with a klezmer band, showing the similarities and differences between the two traditional musics. The McCoury Band has also been recruited by singer-songwriter Steve Earle to provide musical support on his next album.
No matter how the band grows, Ronnie McCoury expects the group always to stay in touch with the music’s homegrown spirit. “I’m here for the music and for the whole scene,” he says. “At a bluegrass show, even when you have 400 kids out there dancing, it still has a real down-to-earth feel. The bluegrass community is like a family. They’re the most devoted fans around. Only now it seems like the family is growing.”
The Del McCoury band plays the Fan Fair bluegrass show June 15.
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