On The String: Del McCoury Has A Lot To Be ‘Almost Proud’ About
We’ve heard numerous accounts of artists, stuck at home during 2020’s Covid lockdown, rummaging through things at home they’d not had time to think about before. Bluegrass icon Del McCoury was no exception.
“I thought, well this a good time for me to get that box of CDs out,” McCoury remembers in his silvertone drawl in Episode 204 of The String. “You know, people send us CDs, or they'll send them to (my son) Ron a lot of times. Or they'll give them to me, and I'll put them in a box. And at that time, I didn't have time to listen to ‘em, (being) quite busy on the road. And so I just went through I don't know how many was in that box. But I picked out about 25 songs and learned them. And in the meantime, I wrote two. And so when we finally did the record, we did just whichever one came to mind first out of those 25, you know?”
In the end, twelve of those songs, including the two Del wrote, made the cut to become Almost Proud, which is somewhere around the 30th album Del has made as a band leader or solo artist. It’s a honky-tonk and blues heavy collection with glimpses of the night life that might portray McCoury’s reality more accurately 40 years ago than today at age 83. Even the character portrayed in the title cut isn’t exactly him, but this “almost proud” fellow certainly resonates with a veteran artist who exudes pride in his family and bluegrass music but very little in himself. McCoury has won every accolade one can win in his field - two Grammy Awards, a National Heritage Fellowship, countless IBMA Awards and induction into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. But in person, he remains the beatific and bemused fellow that snuck up on bluegrass and just about took it over around the turn of the millennium.
McCoury grew up in York, PA and got serious about the banjo as a youngster after hearing Earl Scruggs. As he played local gigs, Bill Monroe heard him and invited him into his (ever-changing) Blue Grass Boys, on the condition that he’d sing lead and swap the banjo for the rhythm guitar. It was a fateful move to the instrument he plays to this day and on which he’s a studied master. Del toured with Monroe for just over a year, and it led to his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium. He left Monroe to get married and move to California, but that musical opportunity didn’t pan out; he and wife Jean were homesick anyway. So for decades, McCoury worked laborious day jobs while playing bluegrass and country joints at night, eventually leading his own band and recording, starting in 1968, which you’ll hear in the show.
It seemed Del might be destined to be a regional star, but about the time he reached his 50th birthday, things accelerated. His sons Ron and Rob became part of his band on mandolin and banjo respectively. They moved to Nashville. A new agent got the band in new and wider ranging venues, playing rock clubs between the traditional bluegrass festivals and performing arts centers, the way Flatt & Scruggs had in the 60s. And it lit a fire that’s still roaring today. As you might have heard in conversations recently on The String with Yonder Mountain String Band and Greensky Bluegrass, Del McCoury has been a core inspiration and generous collaborator to the next generation of string band musicians.
“Back when bluegrass wasn't as popular as it is now, you know, they'd asked me why don't you play this other kind of music, rock or country or whatever?,” says Del in our talk backstage at the Grand Ole Opry on March 29. “And I told them I have the confidence that when I get up there to do what I'm doing, that some people are gonna like it. They're not all gonna like it. But I know some of them will. And I'm not interested in trying another style.”
He played the long game and played it deftly. “I never really got disheartened or disgusted,” he says. “I just kind of went not in leaps and bounds, just small things, you know? When we moved here, we thought well, now we're independent. We owned our place (in Pennsylvania) and owned another house. We thought we’ll go down to Tennessee, and if things don't work out, we'll sell it and come back.”
The old home place is still there waiting on them, but the McCourys don’t expect to need it any time soon.
Also in this hour, Mike Compton, a master of the mandolin and the premiere musician scholar of Bill Monroe, talks about his new project inspired by the father of bluegrass. Rare And Fine: Uncommon Tunes of Bill Monroe includes a dozen instrumentals that Monroe composed but never wrote down or recorded. Compton discovered this material through a lifetime of collecting bootlegs and rehearsal tapes of Monroe. I covered the project in detail here.