By Gary Linehan
The Del McCoury Band returns to the Strawberry Music Festival on Friday for an evening of classic bluegrass served up with a few surprises.
This will be the group’s sixth appearance at Strawberry — a visit delayed three years by the massive Rim Fire of 2013.
McCoury and company were scheduled to star that fall at Camp Mather, but the entire festival was cancelled just days before opening by the blaze that went on to scorch more than 250,000 acres of forest land, the largest Sierra Nevada fire on record and third largest in California history.
McCoury was 74 years old in 2013 and said at the time that he had no plans of slowing down. Now he’s back to prove it.
I had a chance to talk with Del in advance of his scheduled 2013 appearance, at which time he said he was looking forward to returning. Here are some highlights from that conversation, along with a look back at a long and illustrious career that includes time as a Bill Monroe musician, logger, bus driver, engine mechanic and record company executive.
Born Feb. 1, 1939, in North Carolina and raised in York, Pennsylvania, McCoury picked up his first banjo at age 13 after hearing the playing of Earl Scruggs. He honed his skills with Jack Cooke’s Virginia Mountain Boys in the clubs of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., from the late 1950s into the ’60s, before being recruited by the father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, in early 1963.
“I played quite a lot of music before I ever went to work for him,” McCoury noted. “I had been playing banjo for 10 years and I thought I was pretty good.”
Monroe, however, soon told McCoury he needed a guitar player and lead singer more than a banjo picker. “He said, ‘I think you can do it,’” McCoury recalled. “So I had to learn all those songs, going back to 1939, and I learned them pretty quick.”
McCoury was a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys for about a year. He appeared with them at the Grand Ole Opry in 1963 and recorded one single with the group in 1964. Seven live tracks from a concert on Feb. 8, 1963, in New York City — with McCoury still on banjo — also are included in the 2006 three-disc box set “Friends of Old Time Music” from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
Family obligations required McCoury to leave Monroe’s outfit in search of a more reliable income. “When I was single I didn’t have to make a lot of money to get by, but once I got married things changed,” McCoury said.
He worked several years as a logger in Pennsylvania before forming his own band, the Dixie Pals, in 1967. “I did every aspect — run saws, run skidders, pull my own cable. If anything broke, you had to fix it right there. It’s a lot easier playing guitar than logging,” he said.
When he resumed making music for a living, McCoury also became the band’s tour bus driver and chief mechanic.
He has owned four buses over the decades — overhauling one three times — but his wife, Jean, slammed on the brakes in 2007. “She made me quit driving,” he said. “Now if we need a bus, we lease one.”
The Del McCoury Band includes his sons, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin and Rob McCoury on banjo, with Jason Carter on fiddle and Alan Bartram on bass.
They have won dozens of International Bluegrass Music Association Awards along with a 2005 Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album, “The Company We Keep.”
Del McCoury became a member of the Grand Old Opry in 2003 and created the McCoury Music record label that same year. “Celebrating 50 Years of Del McCoury,” a career retrospective, was released in 2009.
In June 2010, McCoury received a National Heritage Fellowship lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2011, he was elected into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.
As McCoury noted back in 2013, “I don’t have much spare time. I’m busier than ever.”
Earlier this year, the Del McCoury Band released “Del and Woody,” an acclaimed 12-song collection combining newly discovered handwritten lyrics by Woody Guthrie with original music by Del McCoury.
McCoury began working on the project more than three years ago at the request of Nora Lee Guthrie, one of Woody’s daughters and president of the Woody Guthrie Foundation.
“She found a whole bunch of stuff just recently they never knew that had,” McCoury recalled in 2013.
Some of the lyrics date back to 1939. The words to “Wimmen’s Hats” were penned in 1940.
“He left California for New York City and wrote ‘This Land Is Your Land’ soon after that, and the next day he wrote ‘Wimmen’s Hats,’” McCoury explained. “He was looking down from his hotel window and had never seen so many different women’s hats, so he wrote a song about it and I had to put music to that.
“Another one (‘Cheap Mike’) was about an auto mechanic. Those two are kind of comedy, but there are some that are real serious,” McCoury said. “One (‘Little Fellow’) he wrote the day one of his kids was born, and it’s really touching. Then there’s one called ‘Family Reunions,’ when all the family gets together but every year someone else is missing. He’s got a way with words, let me tell you.”
Other tracks on the album include “The New York Trains,” “Ain’t A Gonna Do,” “Left in This World Alone,” “Californy Gold,” “Because You Took Me In Out of the Rain,” “The Government Road,” “Dirty Overhalls” and “Hoecake Fritters.”
So thank you Del McCoury for all the great music and congratulations to Rob McCoury on his 2015 IBMA Banjo Player of the Year Award.
The Strawberry Fall Music Festival opens this Thursday, Sept. 1, at Westside Park in the township of Tuolumne, seven miles east of Sonora, California. In addition to the Del McCoury Band on Friday, nightly headliners include Asleep at the Wheel on Thursday, Los Lobos on Saturday and Leftover Salmon on Sunday.
For complete festival information, go to www.strawberrymusic.com.
Bob Dylan quote of the day: “The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter.” (From “Brownsville Girl,” 1986.)