This past weekend marked the end of the legendary Del McCoury Band’s Get On The Bus Tour, the 78-year-old Grammy Award-winning musician’s longest multi-venue tour since 1999. A professional bluegrass musician since his start with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1963, Del has been playing in the scene for almost as long as there has been a scene. We sat down with Del and heard his opinions on the current state of bluegrass music, his surprise sit-in at Telluride Bluegrass Festival, his recent collaboration with Trey Anastasio, and the changes he’s seen in the genre over the long course of his career.
Live For Live Music: Tomorrow is the last night of your longest tour in almost twenty years. How has it been so far, and what inspired you to “get on the bus” and hit the road so hard this year?
Del McCoury: My manager inspired me. [Laughs] But yeah, he just said I’m gonna set up a tour before the end of the year. We’re in Denver now, just got here today. We’re doing two nights here and then we fly home and the bus goes back to California. It’s been good so far. My voice held up! We played Aspen and then last night we played in Steamboat Springs. The altitude takes me a little while to get there—my voice wants to crack and pop and stuff like that. But then after a little while, it straightens out and I can do the whole ninety-minute show no problem. You know, just keep going!
L4LM: With so many different projects under your belt like your work with David Grisman, your own solo performances, and with the Del McCoury Band, how does the way you go into performances change?
DM: It really doesn’t because once I get the band introduced, they’ll do a song or play an instrumental, and then I just ask for requests, so I guess it’s up to the audience what we do for our show! When I’m with David [Grisman]—the Dawg—we have a certain number of songs that we do. With my band, we don’t. We might open the show with a certain number or two, something new, maybe that folks haven’t heard before from the latest thing we did. For the most part, from that point on, we just do requests completely until the end of the show.
We never have a setlist, you know, and that makes it more interesting for the audience, for me, and for the band. Sometimes, they’ll request songs that I recorded thirty years ago and I think, “I wonder if I know this?”, but the band does! They know everything that I’ve ever recorded. But the words sometimes don’t come to me exactly right, so I may rewrite the song during the performance.
L4LM: Your surprise sit-in on Thursday night with Dierks Bentley at Telluride Bluegrass Festival was one of the most exciting moments of the festival. How long was this in the works? Had you planned it for a while or was it a surprise spur of the moment decision to fly in for the festival?
DM: He had no idea we were coming! He didn’t know, and it really shook him up. I went downstairs after the show to his dressing room, and he said, “I still can’t believe this! I just can’t believe it!” But you know, I planned to go, my manager said you need to go do that. But he was surprised. Chris Thile was there too. Chris played some mandolin, which surprised me! I saw him backstage, running around and I said, “Does [Dierks Bentley] know you’re here?” And he said, “No!” It was fun though, it was.
Dierks Bentley with Del McCoury, “Roll On Buddy”, Telluride Bluegrass 2017
[Video: John Odell]
L4LM: On the topic of festivals, could you talk about this past summer at DelFest when you and your sons joined Trey Anastasio Band for a couple of songs, including an original of yours, “Beauty of My Dreams”?
Del McCoury: Well, I wrote that song a long time ago. Trey talked to me before the show and said, “What else can we sing together?” and I had no idea what we could do. He said, “How about ‘Blue and Lonesome’?” and I said, “Are we talking about the same ‘Blue and Lonesome’? The one that Bill Monroe and Hank Williams wrote?” The old Hank! [laughs] And Trey said, “Yeah, that’s the one!”
I said to myself this guy knows his shit about bluegrass! He’s not just a fan, he knows the history of it, so I said, “Well yeah, I used to have to sing that song every night when I was working for Bill Monroe! And I was his lead man, so I know that song.” Trey knows his stuff, man, he knows. He’s played our festival twice now, and it’s fun to play with those guys!
Trey Anastasio Band with Del McCoury, “I’m Blue And Lonesome”, DelFest 2017
L4LM: As a legendary bluegrass musician who’s collaborated with pretty much everyone in the scene, including other icons like Phish from the jam band world, are there any collaborations that stick out in your mind?
Del McCoury: When you get to be my age, nothing surprises you. When you get done, it’s another day’s work. When I was a young man, I would get so excited just to go see a certain band. Now, I know all these people and they’re just like friends, so I don’t get any more excited about that than how I do playing with my own band. It’s just something we do.
It’s like how I am recording a record or doing a show. I don’t have any favorites, I really don’t. I don’t have any favorites in bands or any favorites in songs. People ask me “Are you going to have a theme when you’re gonna do a record?” And I say, no. I just do the songs that I think I would like to sing forever—that I won’t ever get tired of doing. But at the same time, it’s not a theme, it’s just a variety of songs.
Phish with Del McCoury Band, Sam Bush, & Ricky Scaggs, “Uncle Pen”, 6/22/2000
L4LM: Many people in the bluegrass world are of the mindset that bluegrass shouldn’t divulge from its early roots, while others feel as though it should be more progressive and exploratory. This has almost created two different scenes with different fan mentalities. What is your opinion regarding this divide in the bluegrass community?
Del McCoury: Bill Monroe, with a lead singer Lester Flatt, a banjo player named Earl Scruggs, a fiddler named Chubby Wise, and a bass player named Cedric Rainwater. Those guys, they set the blueprint, man! You can’t get away from it. They were five guys came together even though they were different personalities and different styles, formed a band, and invented a music! That doesn’t come every day—somebody inventing a certain style of music. When it comes to listening, that’s what I listen to, because it’s really good! There’s no two ways about it. If you’re gonna perform bluegrass music as your style of music, there’s no getting around that formation of a band—mandolin, fiddle, banjo, guitar, and bass.
Of course, I remember when the progressive bands came into play with Sam Bush because I was playing around when those guys came in. I like what Sam did, but I could never picture myself doing that because that was his view of music! I knew that if I was going to start recording, I had to do my own songs or songs that I wanted to do. I could not do the songs of Bill Monroe or the songs of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs or whoever, I had to do my own style. Just what songs you choose to do is what sets your style. Because you can form that song to your own style without even realizing it.
L4LM: You have been quoted as saying that the creation of the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) in 1985 was when bluegrass “got organized”. How would you describe the difference between before and after its establishment?
DM: You have to be organized in order to grow, I think. And before that, a lot of bands were friends, but they couldn’t get together and work on building a genre of music. They would argue too much! First of all, there’s jealousy, I’m sure there always is, but once some minds got together, they knew that it needed organization. I can’t tell you the hard secret of it all except that I’ve seen it grow since we began getting organized. I’ve seen it grow a lot. For instance, me with my band, I never did well until I got a manager and a booking agent that knew what he was doing, because I was doing my own booking years ago. I needed someone that could see far ahead and plan a career or plan what a band does or should not do. It’s all organization.
L4LM: Do you feel as though bluegrass has gotten its due as a strong pillar and influence on genres such as country, blues, and rockabilly?
DM: What’s happened with bluegrass instruments is that they have filtered out into other forms of music. A lot of the popular music, like country, has banjos, mandolins, and fiddles in it. There would not have been a rockabilly if it had not been for Bill Monroe. All those guys heard Bill Monroe and patterned a lot of their first stuff after his mandolin playing. He was playing that rockabilly mandolin in his bluegrass music. The young guys like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry used to come out to the Grand Ole Opry to hear Bill Monroe playing that mandolin.
Bill Monroe & Earl Scruggs at The Grand Ole Opry
[Video: David Hoffman]
L4LM: As someone who’s been playing bluegrass professionally since 1963, what are some of the biggest changes you have seen over the years?
Del McCoury: Probably the biggest change was the progressive style of it, but it always comes back to a more hardcore thing in the end. I can remember a time when the progressive was the big thing in this music for a while, but I think that these days what I hear is pretty standard, pretty hardcore. And that’s what the music is all about really. You can’t get too far away from the standard, I don’t think.
L4LM: On that note, where do you see the future of bluegrass going?
DM: I think it’s in great shape right now, I really do. With the organization of the IBMA, I think it will grow. There are so many bands out there today, you could not count them! At one time, I could name all of the popular bands because there were not that many of them. But today they’re springing up everywhere. The future of any music lies in young people, and we’ve got so many young bands learning to play bluegrass instruments because it’s a challenge to play! It’s not easy! And kids like a challenge, they do. I think it’s in really good shape.