The Del McCoury Band
At 82, Delano Floyd “Del” McCoury could rest on his laurels, with a 2010 National Heritage Fellowship and membership in the National Bluegrass Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry to prove his bona fides as a revered bluegrass elder. And yet, with regular appearances at the Tennessee-based mega-fest Bonnaroo and over a decade running the celebrated, genre-expanding DelFest in Maryland’s Cumberland Valley, he’s also an energetic visionary helping to shape the future of bluegrass.
McCoury grew up in rural York County, Pennsylvania, just north of Baltimore. Guitar was his chosen instrument until the fateful day when older brother Jerry played 11-year-old Del a recording of Earl Scruggs’s “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”; captivated by Scruggs’s picking, Del took up the banjo. By his early 20s, Del was a popular fixture in the Mid-Atlantic bluegrass scene, and then in 1963 the legendary Bill Monroe recognized his talent and hired him to fill an opening in his famed Blue Grass Boys. Monroe set McCoury on a new path, asking him to switch back to guitar, and moving his iconic “high lonesome” tenor voice to lead vocals.
After a couple years of the full-time musician’s life, Del and his wife Jean returned to Pennsylvania to raise a family. While McCoury worked weekdays cutting timber, weekends found him playing music and fronting the Dixie Pals. In 1981, his then-14-year-old son Ronnie joined Del’s band on mandolin and vocals; later in the decade they were joined by younger son Rob on banjo, and by 1988 were performing as the Del McCoury Band. For both sons, music was a calling, not a duty; as Ronnie says, “My dad never once told me to practice. He always taught by example, and I always saw the joy that he had onstage…. It’s just kind of infectious.”
In 1992, the family—and Del’s eponymous band—relocated to Nashville. Along with Del, Rob, and Ronnie, the quintet boasts the talents of outstanding fiddler Jason Carter and impeccable bassist Alan Bartram. During the 1990s and into the early 2000s, the Del McCoury Band dominated the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) annual awards; they continue to rack up these awards, with more than 40 individual and group citations from the IBMA, including 9 “Entertainer of the Year” awards for Del himself; they also earned 2006 and 2014 Grammy Awards. Del has also been at the forefront of a wave of bluegrass musicians expanding the genre’s popularity without compromising its unique voice; the band is known for brilliant live performances and collaborations with such varied musicians as the progessive-rock group and trailblazing jam band Phish, singer-songwriter Steve Earle, and Dixieland stalwarts the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. After 50 years, Del McCoury’s guitar playing and singing are as captivating as ever, and he’s making some of the best music of his illustrious career—not as an icon of bluegrass music’s past, but as an architect of its future.