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McCoury's Mastery 

Heartbreak, loneliness, searching for salvation, longing for home, and remembering the dead. That bleak emotional landscape is a thing of beauty in the hands of bluegrass veteran Del McCoury, whose dedication to the high lonesome sound has made him one of the genre's greatest practitioners and ambassadors. McCoury's pedigree speaks volumes; he was a member of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in the '60s, and since then he's collaborated with a multi-generational list of artists from Doc Watson to Steve Earle. Yet, at age 63, McCoury might just be hitting his creative peak. In the last decade alone, he's nabbed six prestigious Entertainer of the Year honors from the International Bluegrass Association, and his 2001 CD, Del and the Boys, contains inspired singing and picking on the timeless themes in songs like "Recovering Pharisee" and "Learning the Blues."

"I never know what I'm looking for in a song, or where a song's going to come from -- but I know a good one when I hear it," says McCoury in a phone interview from his Nashville home. "There's usually good playing in any good song, but the story is the important thing."

That's the case with Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," which is the surprising lead track on Del and the Boys. "I'd never heard of Richard, but I think the boys (McCoury's sons Ronnie and Rob) had," says McCoury. "A guy sent a tape to Ronnie of Richard and said, 'You should think about recording this song.' I liked the story, so we worked on it a little bit, and I think it worked pretty good."

McCoury's plainspoken personality is part of his charm. At a time when the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack phenomenon has sparked mainstream interest in bluegrass and other traditional music forms, and renewed criticism over Nashville's reliance on bottom-line profits from homogenized contemporary country artists, McCoury is a welcome voice of old-school pragmatism. "Every dog has its day, and I think it's bluegrass' time," says McCoury. "I've been with this stuff since 1950, and I never expected it to get as big as it has. I'm glad that it has, but I never looked at it as a way to get big and famous. I'm happy I can make a living at it, and I get a lot of satisfaction from running a band. Even with all the problems that come with being a bandleader, I still love to do it."

Part of that joy comes from having his sons Ronnie and Rob in his band. Rob plays banjo, while Ronnie handles mandolin duties and the occasional lead vocal; it's a scenario McCoury never imagined. "I never thought about them playing music with me on the road," says McCoury. "They turned into such great musicians, and they kind of did it on their own. They just started playing instruments that I had around the house when they were growing up. I never made them rehearse or anything like that.

"If I'd hear 'em doing something completely wrong, I'd have to say, 'That's not right,' even if it was just one note," McCoury continues. "I just guided them, and they surprised me. Now they can do anything, and I depend on Ronnie a lot for singing, and he co-produced this last record."

McCoury's come a long way from being a sideman, even if it was for bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe. McCoury worked for Monroe for a year, playing guitar and trading lead vocals, but left the band to get married and take what he thought was a more lucrative job offer. "Looking back, I would have liked to stay with Bill longer -- in other words, I wasn't ready to leave when I did," says McCoury. "Bill needed a fiddle player because Kenny Baker quit, and he asked me to find a fiddle player. So I got Billy Baker the job with Bill, and he was one of the best breakdown fiddlers around. But Billy was one of those guys who's never satisfied anywhere, so he said, 'Let's quit Monroe and go out to California.' I'd been offered a job out there with the Golden State boys, who were playing on this big TV show out there. So we went, but it didn't work out, and we came back home six months later."

Still, McCoury has no regrets. He's steadily worked his way up to his current stature as an acknowledged bluegrass master, and his life keeps getting sweeter. He recently signed with Ricky Skagg's Ceili Music label, and Skaggs helped McCoury get a new manager and a new booking agency. He has a packed touring schedule and artistic freedom as a recording artist. There's never been a better time for Del McCoury to sing about heartbreak and loneliness.

click to enlarge Bluegrass master Del McCoury and his band have won Entertainer of the Year honors from the International Bluegrass Association six times in the last decade.
  • Bluegrass master Del McCoury and his band have won Entertainer of the Year honors from the International Bluegrass Association six times in the last decade.
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