Del McCoury brings traditional bluegrass and more to the Aladdin Theater Dec. 6
Written by Randy Black on November 30, 2015
The Del McCoury Band comes to the Aladdin Theater Sunday, Dec. 6
Del McCoury is two months shy of his 77th birthday. He takes the stage in an immaculate suit and tie, his silver hair a sleek pompadour. With his sons on banjo, mandolin and high-lonesome harmonies, you could think he’s a throwback; a hard-core straight-arrow Blue Grass Boy. But you’d be wrong.
McCoury is the patriarch, quite literally, of what’s considered the consummate bluegrass band. He and his sons, Ronnie on mandolin, and Robbie on banjo, along with fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram, play the Aladdin Theater Sunday, Dec. 6, at 8 p.m. The band’s music harkens to the golden days of bluegrass, but is not stuck in it.
“There are hardcore people that, if you even have a microphone, you’re way too far out,” he told Rolling Stone magazine. “I exaggerate, but you have the hardcore folks. They can listen to whatever they want to but you need variety. You need to have that. You’ve got to have young people coming in all the time. That’s what brings young people in, more progressive sound and variety. I just like variety in music. I think it’s a good thing.”
Variety is what we find in a McCoury band show. You’re as likely to hear an old country hit, such as “Blackjack County Chains,” a goofy version of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Nashville Cats,” an unrecorded Woody Guthrie song, or a straightforward reading of folkie Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” as a killer rip through Bill Monroe’s instrumental “Rawhide.” His discography includes collaborations with his longtime friend David Grisman, two albums with the legendary New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and the landmark “The Mountain” that the McCourys made with Steve Earle in 1999. He’s popular enough with the jam band crowd to be a regular at the Yonder Mountain String Band’s Northwest String Summit in North Plains.
McCoury began playing music around his home in Pennsylvania and, later, Baltimore, while working logging and construction jobs. “I used to travel forty miles during the week and make seven dollars to play a night of bluegrass,” he said.
His first big break came when Bill Monroe hired him in 1963. Del was playing banjo then, but Monroe had another hot-picking young banjo player, Bill Keith. So McCoury became the band’s guitar player and tenor vocalist.
He had several bands over the years, including the Dixie Pals with brother Jerry. The current Del McCoury Band got off the ground when Ronnie joined in 1981, at age 14, and Robbie a couple of years later. By 1992, fiddler Jason Carter and bass player Mike Bub rounded out the band. The only change since then came when Bub left in 2005, replaced by Alan Bartram.
His list of admirers is as eclectic as his tastes in songs. “Here’s a guy who has been playing for fifty years, and he’s still experimenting — still looking to do things outside the box,” Thompson said. “(T)o keep the purity that you need to do this kind of music, and the drive and the energy, takes a special kind of guy,” said Elvis Costello. Rolling Stone’s Nancy Dunham wrote: “Even Phish’s Jon Fishman has said he first read about Del in a Rolling Stone article, in which Jerry Garcia was quoted as saying, ‘I’ve just been trying to sing like Del McCoury all my life.’”
McCoury returns the favor. Dunham wrote that Del “remembers the first time he and his sons heard the buzzed-about Trampled by Turtles. ‘Those guys tickled me to death. They play so fast, you can’t tap your foot to it.'”
“The thing is, I’ve never changed my style at all,” he told Artistsdirect.com. “I’ve always done my own thing, always had confidence in myself. I always knew that someone would like my sound. Young people are just wild about bluegrass. This music has grit, and young people like that. The general public hears something real in bluegrass. That’s why it’s more popular than ever, I believe.”