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Don't go see Del McCoury just because he cut an album (last year's The Mountain) and toured with Steve Earle. Not that it isn't a fine recommendation, but McCoury's anointment by postmodern country icon Earle is just part of the story with the bluegrass singer, guitarist, and bandleader. Of course, if the Earle connection -- or the fact that Phish are among Del's biggest fans -- gets you to listen, cool. And don't go see Del McCoury just because he sang and played both guitar and banjo with Bill Monroe, even if, in the grand scheme of things, that counts for far more than the Earle connection. The founding father's Bluegrass Boys was where the music developed -- and the best training ground ever for musicians and performers in the rural string-band tradition. McCoury's association with the late and lovably crusty ol' pioneer is an indication of McCoury's significance.
Yep -- anyone good enough for Monroe and Earle has to be pretty damn special. But I think Del McCoury should be heard and seen by anyone and everyone with even the slightest taste for roots music because he's "one of those chosen people who are born to sing bluegrass," as Tracy Schwarz put it in his 1968 liner notes to the Arhoolie Records McCoury album, I Wonder Where You Are Tonight. And because Del possesses a vital mixture of tradition and innovation -- check out McCoury's version of the Lovin' Spoonful's "Nashville Cats" on his most recent CD, The Family -- that has been all too rare in bluegrass since its initial emergence, as well as in the "newgrass" heyday of the 1970s. The Del McCoury Band has the chops and the reverence to satisfy the sometimes almost fascist strictures of some bluegrass purists, but operates as if today were the 1950s, when Monroe, Jimmie Martin, Flatt & Scruggs, and Ralph and Carter Stanley made the high lonesome sound a part of mainstream music. There's good reason why McCoury and his band have been honored as "Entertainer of the Year" by the International Bluegrass Music Association and appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Simply put, he's the bluegrass man of the moment, a talent for all times.
McCoury's airy, supple tenor is like the voice of God's own best friend, while his rhythm guitar is a bluegrass bedrock of ages -- a foundation even an earthquake can't shake. Sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob McCoury (banjo) and the rest of the Del McCoury Band grasp the fulcrum point between flash and tasteful restraint on which the best bluegrass music pivots, giving their shows the sort of mystic musical energy that can transport one's spirit to some backwoods hollow in the Smoky Mountains. They are bluegrass at its proudest and smartest.
But also see Del McCoury because he's a true gentleman of the old school and a genuine working-class hero who left the bluegrass circuit -- where he could have become a star years ago -- to toil at blue-collar jobs in order to raise his family right. He's what was once called a great American, playing great American music. He returned to action with his boys during the last decade in time to inherit the bluegrass mantle from Monroe after the master's recent passing, and now leads the one act in the genre that is absolutely required listening, and a fine ol' time to boot.
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