Backstage at the Grand Ole Opry is a convivial commotion of rehearsing and visiting, a friends-and-family ethos that infuses the show on stage with heart, even if the audience can’t see it directly. On February 13, that energy and affection was focused on a single performer, a gentleman with a beatific smile and a signature silver pompadour who slipped easily from conversation to the stage for multiple collaborations. A double-take birthday cake in the coffee lounge told the story. This evening was designated the “Grand Del Opry,” celebrating the 80th birthday of America’s most revered and influential living traditional bluegrass artist, Del McCoury.
Everyone there that night was close to the bluegrass patriarch and his family band, including a cast of veteran musical colleagues who’d seen Del’s steady commitment and bright attitude accumulate good will and fandom, especially since the 1990s. Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs recalled his band the Johnson Mountain Boys sharing bills with Del McCoury when he was still a regional bandleader in the 1980s, when bluegrass was as lost on pop culture as the didgeridoo. Sam Bush, founder of New Grass Revival and the genre branch that bears that band’s name, remembers Del performing in 1966 at one of the first ever bluegrass festivals. “Del came on and sang ‘The Prisoner’s Song’ and I just about fell over,” Bush said in one of the Opry dressing rooms. “I went ‘Wow, that’s a voice.’” They have subsequently recorded and toured together.
Mainstream country star Dierks Bentley, another of the cast who performed that evening with and for Del McCoury, spoke of the artist’s open-armed approach to newcomers in the field. “I wrote him a letter telling him I know without a doubt I would not be doing this if I’d not met the McCourys,” he said. First it was Del’s sons Ronnie and Rob playing in the Sidemen house band at Nashville’s Station Inn in the late 1990s, well before Bentley had a foothold in the music business. After meeting Del, he invited that voice he loved to be part of his albums.
“He’s as close as you can get right now to the source of this music,” Bentley said. “He was part of Bill Monroe’s band back in ‘63. And he’s just authentic. He’s accessible. He’s fun. He’s brave. He takes chances. He’s open to everyone’s type of music. Doesn’t talk down to anybody. He’s kind of who we all aspire to be I think. To be as gracious and kind and cool as Del.”
Marty Stuart, who’s known and played with Del since Marty was a teenager in Lester Flatt’s bluegrass band in the 1970s, said Del’s consistency and confidence put him in a unique position to inspire a whole raft of new bluegrass fans and bands. “He could do new things, but he could also keep the Monroe Brothers or the Lilly Brothers or anybody alive from the old world of bluegrass,” Stuart said after his set. “His authenticity I think spoke to a whole new generation of people. The Del McCoury Band have just been fearless about what they do without changing anything, and I think that’s been the beauty of it. And people just keep responding to that joy and the absolute mastery.”
All of us who believe bluegrass is special music with an enriching influence on American life and a particular generational bridge-building quality, are reaching on this occasion for words worthy of Del’s contributions. He’s that rare artist who became a national star well after his fiftieth birthday. He dominated his field with nine International Bluegrass Music Association Awards between 1994 and 2004, and his aura reached farther outside the bluegrass scene than any contemporary artist besides Alison Krauss. He was the gateway into bluegrass for thousands of news fans, and he directly inspired young people to play and launch bands, including the Grammy-winning Steep Canyon Rangers. Without his searching musicality and his liberal outlook on his art form, bluegrass would be much less energetic, diverse or exciting today. During years when bluegrass was prickly with debates about the merits of traditional sounds versus a progressive ethos, Del McCoury somehow became a lodestar for both camps and living proof that we can’t have one without the other.
Del, who officially turned 80 on Feb. 1, grew up in the 1940s in western North Carolina. Then, about the time he started playing guitar and banjo with the guidance of an older brother, the family moved to rural Pennsylvania, which would be his home base for decades. That region, around Maryland and the District of Columbia, was vibrant with bluegrass music in the 1960s, and after a few years playing semi-professionally, bluegrass founding father Bill Monroe heard Del and invited him into his Blue Grass Boys, where he spent 1963, played the Opry for the first time, and made some memorable recordings. With only a few brief exceptions, that would be it for Del’s national exposure until the late 1980s.
Del’s son Rob joined his father in the last iteration of his regional band The Dixie Pals, first on bass then on banjo. Younger son Ron followed on mandolin about the time the band took on its current name. Del McCoury began recording for the genre-leader Rounder Records in 1987. In the early 90s, the family moved to Hendersonville, TN and took on new management that supported the band as it took some important new directions. Besides the time-tested bluegrass circuit of clubs, school-houses and festivals, The Del McCoury Band sought bookings at rock venues and on wider-ranging stages. They teamed with Americana country rocker Steve Earle to make his album The Mountain in 1999. Following the tastes and instincts of his sons, Del befriended the iconic jam band Phish and played with them to tens of thousands of young music freaks.
I saw an apotheosis of this journey at the first Bonnaroo outside of Nashville in 2002. Del and the boys were the only hard core bluegrass band on a jam heavy bill. Several thousand fans packed into one of the side tents, craning their necks with fascination to see these acoustic masters wearing suits. When Ronnie introduced his father a few songs in, a roar went up from deep in the hearts and diaphragms of the throng. It was primal, and it went on and on, and then it got even bigger, and the memory of that crescendo is so clear and vivid to this day that I get chills. I’d been watching and hoping for traditional music to break through to mainstream culture, and here it was, led by a then 63-year-old man with a high voice.
So on Valentine’s Eve at the Opry last week, it wasn’t as if Del had eluded recognition for his greatness. He was made an Opry member in 2003 and a member of the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2011. He was made a lifetime honoree by the National Endowment for the Arts with a National Heritage Fellowship in 2010. But you’d never know it talking to this self-effacing gentleman. When he accepted his Hall of Fame induction on the Ryman Auditorium stage, surrounded by his family, Del spread the credit around and celebrated the music itself. “People ask me about the state of bluegrass,” he said. “And I tell them it’s better than it’s ever been, and let’s all tell people that, because it is.”
Nobody gets more credit for that than Del himself.