Music Q&A: Del McCoury

Del McCoury, left, and Sam Bush

Del McCoury is bluegrass.

Although he isn’t credited with inventing the genre, McCoury, 74, is considered bluegrass royalty, having performed for more than 50 years.

“If there’s a king of bluegrass, his name is Del,” said Grammy-Award winning musician Sam Bush, himself among the finest bluegrass musicians in the country and a frequent performer at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

Bush’s thoughts on McCoury were part of a YouTube video posted in January as the duo embarked on their first tour together.

That tour, the Sam Bush & Del McCoury Tour, stops in Grand Junction at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 23, at Avalon Theatre, 645 Main St.

Tickets to the show cost $37.50 for all seats. They’re on sale at area City Market stores, and at the door.

Local band Stray Grass opens the show.

In advance of the show, I caught up with McCoury to talk about the tour, bluegrass music’s evolution, and why he’s always in a suit.

Melinda Mawdsley: Thanks so much for your time. Talk to me about your love of bluegrass.

Del McCoury: Well, I tell you Melinda, I heard Earl Scruggs when I was a kid. I was 11, I think. I already had learned to play guitar, but I heard Earl Scruggs and said, “Boy, that’s what I want to do. I want to play (banjo) like that guy.” That’s what I did. ... When I graduated high school, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis were the thing. That’s what all the kids listened to, but I heard Earl Scruggs, and he grew on me. I was just into banjo in that day. ... I played banjo for roughly 11 years before going to work for Bill Monroe.

Mawdsley: I read that Bill Monroe switched you from banjo to guitar when you joined his band, Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in early-1963. Is that true?

McCoury: He kind of blind-sided me with that. I was thinkin’ banjo the whole time. In fact, the first job I played with him was in New York City on banjo before I was hired. Then, what happened was he needed a guitar player and lead singer more than anything else. He wanted me to do that. I was really into that banjo, but he proved to be right because (once I switched) I never seriously went back to play banjo.

Mawdsley: So you how many instruments can you play?

McCoury: Well, mainly I play guitar, but years ago I played banjo. Sam told me (for this tour) he wanted me to play banjo with him on the fiddle.

Mawdsley: Tell me a little about your relationship with Sam.

McCoury: I had a band by the middle-1960s and Sam was pretty young then, but by the late ‘60s him and some old boys got together for a progressive bluegrass band. They were playing a lot of different music, which I never did do. Sam kind of took on a progressive sound. We’ve known each other since then, and we would jam together. Finally, we got the notion that we should go out on the road just the two of us and do something. Once the booking agents got a whiff of this, they got things booked before we even rehearsed. That’s what it takes. We have good managers and agents. That’s what it really takes to push you. Otherwise, you’ll get lazy.

Mawdsley: So you’ve played together for decades but never really performed together?

McCoury: The first time was not until a couple months ago. (This tour) is only maybe two months old. (But) we’ve got all practiced up for you folks. ... He’ll play mandolin tunes, and he also plays fiddle. I play guitar, and I’ll play the banjo. We do one number like that.

Mawdsley: I’ve learned you will be recording the Avalon performance live. Is that for a potential album?

McCoury: I think my manager and Sam’s road manager do tape everything, so it is a possibility they are trying to get a good recording, and it’s possible it’s to be released.

Mawdsley: Do you always wear a suit when you perform? Every video and photo I’ve seen, you are in a suit.

McCoury: Yeah. I always did. When I was working for Bill Monroe, we always wore suits and ties. Now, Sam don’t. Of course, he comes from a little bit later generation.

Mawdsley: You’ve mentioned how Sam had a more progressive sound. Has bluegrass changed much in your 50 years performing?

McCoury: Yeah, it has. Bluegrass is in a better state now than it ever has been. It’s an internationally-played music now. We have international fans. When I first started, it was kind of a local thing. Bill Monroe was on Nashville radio, but there weren’t that many bands back then. Back in those days, you could go certain places and people had never heard anything like it. I played in Baltimore first starting out, and there was a band, Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys. This folklorist come down from New York City and told Earl he was going to put (Earl) in Carnegie Hall. They were the first bluegrass band to play Carnegie Hall in 1959. I knew all those guys. They realized when they walked out on the stage no one had ever heard that kind of music. Now, there are a lot of bands. I can’t keep up with them.

Mawdsley: Last question, how have you kept yourself in performance-shape for more than 50 years?

McCoury: I’ve always been in pretty good physical shape, and I really don’t exercise. I try to, but I tell you, I used to cut timber in the woods. I did that for years. I think that has helped keep me in shape for the later years. With my voice, I’m just fortunate it stays there with me. For the most part, it’s always just there. I do like coffee, and people tell me that’s the worst thing a singer can drink before they go out, but I do. I think my voice wasn’t as good 10 years ago as it is now. I think you go through changes in life, and my voice is better now than it was 10 years ago.


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