That the Del McCoury Band has been able to maintain its place at the forefront of bluegrass while achieving sainthood among the tie-dye set is a testament to the respect the McCoury family commands. The hardcore bluegrass community, after all, isn’t known for its receptiveness to outside influences, let alone twirling, angel-winged, hula-hooping freaks. (Stan Strickland, DMB’s manager, sums up bluegrass insularity this way: “How many grassholes does it take to screw in a light bulb? Seven: one to change the light bulb, six to stand around and say, ‘Why in the world would you try to improve on a candle?’ ”)
But despite musical provincialism—and the bizarre image of five squeaky-clean, suit-clad, good Christian men headlining hippie festivals that might as well be the Gomorrah Hedonodome—the links between the bluegrass and jam-band worlds are entrenched, and it makes a certain amount of sense. As many who’ve stepped through the looking glass can attest, there are few sounds as psychedelic as a finger-picked banjo—it’s practically the sonic equivalent of misfiring synapses. For four decades now, trippy electric guitarists from Jerry Garcia to Trey Anastasio have been adapting bluegrass banjo techniques to their instrument. And hybrid bluegrass acts such as Béla Fleck to Sam Bush have long nurtured followings in the tie-dye set. But never before has a straight-ahead, hardcore bluegrass act been so welcomed into the fold.
The bluegrass/jam-band connection isn’t lost on Del McCoury. “I played once in Virginia at a bluegrass festival,” he recalls, “and just before I left, David Grisman came up to me and said, ‘I want you to meet my new banjo player.’ And it was Jerry Garcia [who at the time was playing banjo with Grisman in Old and in the Way]…. He told me, ‘You know, I wanted a job with Bill Monroe. I wanted to be a Blue Grass Boy too.’ ”
Of course, back in 1963, when Del himself joined Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, it’s doubtful he had the slightest notion that 45 years later he’d be performing in front of thousands of the great unwashed, standing center stage as women bare their breasts at him and billows of the kind bud waft overhead like the Smoky Mountain fog.
But it’s a welcome surprise for the 68-year-old singer, who fronts what is widely considered the premier bluegrass band of the last two decades—since 1994, DMB has been voted the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year nine times. And this New Year’s Eve, the group—including Del’s sons Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo, along with fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram—are the focal point of a show at the Ryman that will shine a spotlight on their long, strange trip: Del and the boys will play a traditional set, then will be joined by Leftover Salmon’s Drew Emmitt (mandolin) and Vince Herman (guitar) and Phish’s Jon Fishman for (bluegrass snobs, avert your eyes) an electric set. Steep Canyon Rangers open the show, and bluegrass artist Ronnie Bowman (and perhaps a few surprise guests) will also partake in the celebration.
The DMB’s full initiation into the jam-band world took place on July 18, 1999, during Camp Oswego, a festival in upstate New York hosted by Phish. DMB had been invited to play at a side stage, but Phish pulled the bluegrass band onto the main stage in the middle of their headlining set in front of 65,000 screaming fans.
“I didn’t have an appreciation for how massive Phish was at that time,” Strickland says. “I didn’t think it was going to work. Phish just stopped in the middle of the set, brought ’em out, and they played a very traditional set for 15 or 20 minutes. And they’re just having a great time. And Del, to his credit, is just up there doing his thing. But he’s getting sort of lost too, because that’s the first time we’ve had bare-breasted women in the crowd. You don’t have that at traditional bluegrass shows.
“That’s happened a few times now,” Strickland continues. “We were at Irving Plaza a few years ago, with Donna the Buffalo opening…and that was the first time I saw Del just completely lose it. Because all of a sudden here’s a very bosomy girl, she gets excited about the show, just flashes him, opens her shirt. And Del completely lost his place. And Jim Bessman was sitting up there with Ethan Coen. And he just had to start over and apologize to the crowd. He said, ‘If you folks had just seen what I saw, you’d have lost your place too.’ And so it’s become common. I think it’s gotten out that it rattles Del.”
It’s a phenomenon Del acknowledges in his own down-home way: “The first time we played Bonnaroo, the boys said to me after the show, ‘Did you see that girl right out in front of you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, why?’ They told me, ‘Those clothes weren’t clothes, they were just painted on.’ I must be getting old. I missed that!”
Of course, McCoury got his first taste of hippie culture long before Oswego. “With [Bill] Monroe,” McCoury says, “we were playing those [early-’60s] folk festivals…and there was a lot of pot-smoking hippies and beatniks…. They smoked pot, and they still do.” He pauses. “When we’re playing onstage you’ll smell it every now and then,” he adds, laughing.
According to Strickland, the New Year’s Eve show is a precursor of things to come. With Del tapering back his schedule, his sons and bandmates have their own future to think about. “We’re using this show to signal where the McCoury family is headed as a whole,” Strickland says. “How do we evolve? How do we find what Earl found when he stretched into his Earl Scruggs Revue thing in the ’60s?”
To that end, the sons, along with Carter and Bartram, are joining forces with Emmitt and String Cheese Incident’s Bill Nershi to create a new group, The McCoury Influence, which will be hitting the road in the coming year. According to Strickland, talks are under way to bring Fishman into the mix.
Apparently that’s news to Fishman. When told of the plan, his voice shoots up an octave: “Are you kidding me? Del’s manager said this? Good Lord! Well, no one’s said this to me.”
But it’s a pleasant surprise. “They’re just phenomenal musicians, and great singers,” says the former Phish drummer. “I’m open to anything. I don’t really have any plans right now…. It’s funny because I was talking to [Phish guitarist] Trey [Anastasio] recently and he said, ‘Who knows? Maybe the universe has decided that you’re going to be the world’s first official bluegrass drummer.’ ”
Regarding the New Year’s Eve gig, Fishman is ecstatic. “It’s not often that you get paid to play a gig that you would have bought a ticket for. It’s good they’re paying me. Otherwise, I probably would have paid them. Don’t tell them that!”
Del McCoury is equally excited about the gig, and has no qualms about picking up a mic and fronting a rock band. “I’ll sing a few songs with the boys when they’re plugged in,” he says. “I don’t think it’s really structured. Whatever happens, happens. But I know we’ll run out of time before it’s all over.”
Spoken like a true hippie.
For a snippet of the Scene’s interview with John Fishman, featuring tales of the Phish drummer’s stint in a University of Vermont frat-house band witnessing tales of homoerotic debauchery, visit our music blog, nashvillecream.com.
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