hide captionThe Del McCoury Band has done away with modern amplification. McCoury (far right) explains: "In the '60s we went to like eight microphones ... and I just got so fed up trying to sing with a guy who's six feet away from me."
Publicity Photo Courtesy of McCoury Music
The Del McCoury Band has done away with modern amplification. McCoury (far right) explains: "In the '60s we went to like eight microphones ... and I just got so fed up trying to sing with a guy who's six feet away from me."
Several years ago, influential bluegrass musician Del McCoury decided to do away with modern concert amplification and go back to the basics: With his musical sons at his side, he returned to a two-microphone setup — a throwback to his days playing with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in the early 1960s.
Over the years, The Del McCoury Band has established itself as one of the premiere bluegrass groups, playing a mix of traditional music, gospel and their own compositions. The Del McCoury Band — with Del (guitar), Ronnie (mandolin), Rob McCoury (banjo), Jason Carter (fiddle), and Alan Bartram (acoustic bass) — performs live in Studio 4A.
'That's What I Want to Do'
Del McCoury was a young man in York County, Pa., when he picked up the banjo for the first time.
"You know, probably the first band that I played in was in church," he said in a 2006 interview. "My first cousin played mandolin and I played banjo, and my brother played guitar."
McCoury and his older brother were fans of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, pioneers of today's bluegrass music. Scruggs developed his own picking style, which was fast and melodic, and quite different from the style indigenous to traditional Appalachian music. McCoury found the new sound infectious.
"I was 11 when I heard Earl Scruggs, and I thought, 'That's what I want to do.'" McCoury recalls. "Those cats could play fast, and they could sing high and just do everything."
An Offer He Couldn't Refuse
After a short tenure in the military, McCoury found his way to Baltimore, Md., where he played with the Franklin County Boys, the Stevens Brothers and the Virginia Playboys.
When a spot opened up in the Blue Grass Boys, Bill Monroe's legendary band, Monroe asked McCoury to audition. Monroe, one of the fathers of bluegrass music, was a wizard on the mandolin. It was an invitation McCoury couldn't refuse.
When McCoury arrived at the Clarkston Hotel in Nashville, he was surprised to learn that Monroe wanted him to play guitar, not banjo. Still, McCoury passed muster. He was a Blue Grass Boy for a year, before he and fiddler Billy Barker headed to California to join the Golden State Boys.
In 1967, working as a logger and construction worker and playing part-time, McCoury founded his own band, Del McCoury and the Dixie Pals. The group won critical praise, and played at festivals across the country.
A Family Affair
Two decades later, McCoury's son, Ronnie, a mandolin player in Monroe's mold, joined his father's group and The Del McCoury Band was born.
Since then, the group has traveled widely, recorded many successful albums and won a host of honors — including a Grammy Award and more than 30 prizes from the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Now regarded as one of today's premiere bluegrass groups, they're known widely for collaborating with Phish and, most recently, Merle Haggard.
They are also known for their scaled-back performance setup:
"When you're in this microphone right here," McCoury says, "and you're all four or three or two singing there, you can hear this guy out of your own natural ear and tell exactly when he's breathing and what he's doing."
The Del McCoury Band's latest album, Little Mo' McCoury, features children's songs performed in bluegrass style. The Promised Land, also recently released, puts a bluegrass spin on gospel music.
"Back when I was a young guy," McCoury recalls, "there was Frank Sinatra on the radio, you know, and there was Bing Crosby — you knew it was Bing. But there was nothing that excited a kid like this bluegrass music. It just had that punch."