INTERVIEW: Del McCoury

(Originally written for jambands.com1)

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Del’s Next Fest

Over the last decade or so, Del McCoury has been busy.

Not that he wasn’t before that—the bluegrass legend has scarcely stopped picking since he started as one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in the early 60s—but the last ten years have been especially good to him. In the late 90s, Phish invited him and his band (including sons Ronnie and Robbie McCoury) onstage during their festival in upstate New York, effectively launching the traditionally bluegrass-only group into the world of jambands and expanding their appeal. Then in 2008, Del began his very own bluegrass festival in Cumberland, MD; today, the appropriately named DelFest is considered by many to be the east coast’s answer to the Telluride bluegrass festival.

And now, Del has his sights set on another festival: Pinnacle, North Carolina’s Jomeokee Festival. We caught up with Del to talk about this new festival as well as his experience onstage with Phish and the nature of bluegrass music itself in an interview.

Del in plain text, to be read in a genuine, soothing folk drawl.

There’s a new festival coming up that you’re headlining called Jomeokee. How did you get involved with it?

Well, I tell you what…the promoter, Bob Robertson, we’re kinda going in business with him. He ran Black Mountain, and I played for him there. So, that’s kinda how we got to know each other, but he got to know my manager better than me. I didn’t get to talk to him all that much, but I will when this festival comes off.

But it’s in Pinnacle, North Carolina, close to Mt. Airy. You know, Andy Griffith and all that. (Laughs) And I used to play a festival there years ago, Lester Flat had a festival and we haven’t played much around that vicinity since then, but it’s good to go back…there’s a lot of great fans in that state, all over.

Well it sure seems like the heartland for the genre, although everyone seems to be embracing bluegrass lately.

They have, they really have. I’ve noticed that myself. Boy, this past year our festival up there (DelFest), it really grew, y’know, since it first started, and it seems a lot of the festivals we play are that way. They’re really growing.

You know, [bluegrass festivals] started back in the sixties, of course. I played actually the first one. Not the first year of it, but the second year of it, there in Fincastle, Virginia in 1965. And then, they really got big, but there was only a couple. Then of course, the market got flooded.

A promoter by the name of Carlton Haney started that. He lived right there in northern North Carolina. He was a promoter. He was actually Conway Twitty’s manager at the time. And he wanted to start a bluegrass festival. I was working for Bill Monroe in 1963, and he tried to get him then to have a bluegrass festival and Bill Monroe said, “nah, that won’t work,” you know. But they had a festival then in ’65 without the help of Bill Monroe, and he hired all the main acts, and in two years he moved it to Berryville, Virginia, which is closer to the big northern cities like DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia and even New York City, because then, when it got up there it got really big. He was drawing from those big cities, you know. So, that was the boom. Then, there got to be so many in the seventies and eighties that it went downhill in a way.

But now, I think they’re coming back big, big and strong. The music is more, well…diverse. Well, back then, there were people that were diehards, and you couldn’t book anything but really hardcore bluegrass bands at the festival, you know?

Absolutely. It seems as if there’s a lot more deviation from strict bluegrass in today’s bluegrass bands, what with groups like Greensky Bluegrass and the like mixing it up like they do.

(Laughs) Yeah, well you know, all music is related, too, I’ve found. In the beginning, I was that way. I thought, “this bluegrass, there’s nothing like it.” I thought it was something of its own that was not related to any other music, but I found out later that those early pioneers like Bill Monroe, he’d go to New Orleans and listen to jazz bands when he was young. He was influenced by that. And then Earl Scruggs, you know, I never thought about it, but “Bugle Call Rag” and all those, they were jazz tunes. And Don Reno recorded things on banjo, but heard that stuff when they were young. They just transformed it to banjo, you know.

To go back to Jomeokee, how did you go about selecting artists for the stage you’re curating at the festival?

I leave a lot of that up to my boys, cause they know a lot about what’s happenin’ in music more so really than I do. So they kinda know who to book. But you know I play with a lot of these guys, too. [Playing on the Del McCoury-curated stage] you got us, of course, and Yonder Mountain String Band, Emmitt Nershi and Larry Keel, and I know all those guys, but there’s some new ones too that I can’t even remember the names [of] now…some of them are rock musicians, and I don’t know those guys too well, but I will by the time it’s over.

Do you find yourself playing the role of promoter at these events and looking for bands that you may want to include in the next Delfest?

Yeah, I do sometimes. All of us do—me, my wife, my boys, my manager…they all keep their eyes and ears open for different things. It’s kind of a band thing that we all go through. And I must confess that the boys, the younger guys, they know a lot more of what’s going on better than I do. When it comes to new bands to book, that kind of thing. So, I leave a lot of that up to them.

You have an interesting contest going at Jomeokee. What is it and how’d it come about?

You know what, I don’t know whose idea it was, but what they do is they get musicians to get in a tape or a video of them playing and then the one that wins the contest, they get to get up and play with us at the festival. Of course, they’ll be probably above amateur status if they win, y’know, cause they’ll be a lot of folks enterin‘…and boy, these kids surprise me today, what they can do? It’s amazing, I’m tellin’ you.

Just last night I played with Sierra Hull here, she’s here in Boston with us, and I really never paid much attention to Sierra, but boy, she is really a great musician and just, she’s only like, maybe 20. And here I am 73! She played at our festival, also. But there’s just some of the greatest musicians coming along. And I wondered how thing can be and then I get thinkin’ back to when I was just starting to play, all we had was records or you could see a live performance somewhere but that was hard, you know? You didn’t learn fast. But today, they have all these extra things like the internet. I know my grandsons, they learn so much stuff off that, you know, cause they play music.

Are they playing bluegrass?

My one grandson Ronnie’s son Evan, he plays piano, electric and acoustic guitar and the clarinet, and I couldn’t believe, a couple of years ago, he’s about 14 now—anyway, they wanted us to go to a recital his band in school had, so, we went, me and my wife, so they single Evan out to play “The Entertainer” out on piano, so he’s playing up all by himself in this program. And I couldn’t believe how that guy played! He had that left hand goin’ for the rhythm and the right hand goin’ for the lead and all that. I couldn’t believe it man!

Now, they put him, their teacher in school, they’ll have these things for the parents and grandparents in the auditorium where you can come and see them. Their music teacher has a little section where they have a jazz band and my grandson Evan plays electric guitar, and he’ll take a break and boy he’ll just tear it up! And so, I think to myself, us guys when we were that age, we couldn’t be that good because we couldn’t hear that much, so they have a better chance at it, they do.

There’s an interactive aspect to your events—Delfest has bluegrass workshops, Jomeokee has the interactive contest as well as fan videos. Do you consider this as a part of the bluegrass community or is this more of a Del McCoury thing?

You know, I’ll tell you what—I think it goes back to early festivals, even the folk festivals. I remember playing with Bill Monroe at Newport [Folk Festival]. That was one of the first ones I played with Monroe, and they had workshops then, you know, where the people would ask questions and the musician would demonstrate how you play certain things or sing something, you know. And so, it’s just always been apart of bluegrass since the festival started. Before that, nothin’. There wasn’t nothin’, you know.

You have gone from playing straight bluegrass shows for bluegrass crowds to playing to a more jamband-centric crowd over the years. How do the two scenes vary in your mind?

Well, actually, my band, when we do our show, of course them and Keller, when their doing their own shows, they do their own thing, but when we play, I’m still doing what I did in the nineties or even earlier than that…it’s according to what we get requests for. Cause I’ll introduce the band with the first four or six numbers…and then after that I’ll ask for requests, and it’s hard to tell what they’ll request—they could request something I’ve recorded thirty years ago (Laughs). And the boys, they know it. I don’t have to worry about them not knowing the song because they know it. It’s me I’m worried about!

But, you know, as far as the band…it’s the same. We have the same structure in the band, same instruments, same harmonies and all. But, I think what really happened to me, I wrote this song and recorded it some time ago and Phish recorded it on a live album and they wanted us to come up and do their festival when they had that thing up in there on lake in New York (1999’s Camp Oswego). And so I said “yeah, we’ll go up and play.” I know we were the only bluegrass band there. And there was like 77,000 people there. I’d never played in front of that many people! And so, anyway, we got there and Trey said, “What can we do together?” We were gonna do my song, the one I wrote…but then Trey said, “Look, what else can we do?” And I said, “Man, I have no idea,” because I didn’t know what they knew and what we could do together, and he said, “Do you know ‘Blue and Lonesome’?” And I said, “You mean that old Hank Williams, Bill Monroe song?…Yeah, I used to sing it every day with Bill Monroe! …You know that song?” And he said “Yeah!”

So, we did that, and that showed me that he went back and learned what Bill and bluegrass people did. He researched it all and he knew his stuff about my style of music, y’know, and I think from that, we played with String Cheese [Incident] later on and Leftover Salmon and it was just dates that we could book, that’s why we did it. And we never changed what we did. We just played varied festivals along with them and then get together and play tunes together. And that kind of integrated it, you know? So it kind of came about before us, in the beginning. It was probably [because of] Phish. [They were] the first ones that got us thinking that we could play with other people and not be mad at ‘em! Cause that’s the way a lot of other musicians are, y’know, they’re pretty…hardcore at what they do, and they don’t wanna change.

But I tell you, these guys from New Orleans, their…ears are open all the time and they love to play with all kinds of people, y’know? And I do, too. It’s interesting, y’know?

If the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is any indication…

Yeah! And we did that album with them and you know, it didn’t take us long. We played this fair and they said “look, we’ll go down there in south San Francisco where we got this mission that we own, and we can record in that place. So that’s what we did—we went there and it took about three days, got a bunch of songs together and recorded ‘em. It was actually easy to do.

I’ll tell you the hard part: the horns are loud. I’m tellin’ you when I say loud, you know they’re loud! And to get the balance was kinda tough, so we had to mic all of us to do it, and of course they did too, and we couldn’t get too much separation at the time. I brought the thing back to Nashville and my engineer and he was trying to mix this thing and he said “well, I don’t know about these horns. Why don’t you call their guy in New Orleans and have him come up here and mix the horns for me.” So we did…and boy it made such a big difference for the record. He came up there and [the two of them] mixed all the horns together, and it made all the difference in the world. So we solved that problem.

Speaking of collaborations, I know you just released an album together with David Grisman called Hardcore Bluegrass.

Yeah, you know, that stuff…I had completely forgotten about all that stuff. We recorded that stuff…it had to have been like 20 years ago, at least…Well, maybe not that like. I’ve known David for a long time. I got to know him when I was working for Bill Monroe back then, and he was pretty young, David was, he was like 15, maybe. So, we’ve been friends ever since and played dates together. So when I go to California sometimes David says “hey, come by the house,” you know…so we go up there and we just record, kinda for the fun of it, you know. We record these songs.

So David called me one day and said “hey, I’m gonna put an album out of that stuff we did,” and I said, “God, well what does it sound like? It might be bad!” “No,” he said, “it’s great!” So that’s what he did then. He did get my permission to release it. I think that’s the last thing I’ve had released. Before that I had the Bill Monroe thing.

Right, Old Memories, your Bill Monroe tribute album. You got a Grammy nod for that, right?

Yeah, uh huh. And, who won? Allison, I think.

Alison Krauss?

Yeah, I think she did. But…you can’t buck her! (Laughs)

Yeah, good for her, that’s about all you can say.

Yeah, good for her! You know, she’s so good. And I’ve known her too since she was just a kid.

We just had [Allison Krauss band member and renowned dobro player] Jerry Douglas in the Relix offices not too long ago.

You did? He’s such a great musician, that guy. You know he used to produce my records back when.

He produced this one record, and we needed a baritone part on this song. Me and Ronnie had sang the duet but we were expecting to have a baritone part later and overdub it. [But] there was nobody there. My baritone player was somewhere else at the time we were mixing this record, so I said, “Jerry, get in there and put the baritone part down on this song.” I had never heard him sing in my life, I was just maybe kidding with him. And he said, “oh man, I dread this.” And I thought, he’s gonna do it! …So he goes in there, and he nailed it. Nothing to it! An old Johnnie and Jack tune, “Prying Heart Blues.” I said to Ronnie, “listen to him blend with us. He just knows how to blend that part.”

And then later on, on that same record, we needed a baritone part on another song. Something about Virginia, I can’t remember the title. But Bela Fleck just stopped in the studio and Jerry said “Bela, get in there and sing baritone on this song.” Bela said, “what!? I never sing!” Jerry said, “you’re gonna sing now! Get in there and sing this part!” And he did! He went in there and he did sing it! They’re just true professionals, you know. That’s what it is.

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