[21 August 2003]
Del McCoury‘s been playing his high lonesome bluegrass for roughly 40 years, so it’s no surprise that he’s considered a master. He’s also surrounded himself with one of the best bluegrass bands on the planet (Ricky Skaggs’s Kentucky Thunder offers the only real competition). When you realize that Del’s Boys actually include two of his boys—Rob and Ronnie McCoury—it becomes plain that the McCoury DNA contains a bluegrass gene that’s been clicked on, supercharged, and injected with everything that’s good and fine about the genre.
Despite that pedigree and decades on the road, McCoury’s best years are certainly not behind him. 2001’s Del and the Boys found the band playing at the top of their form, and an inspired cover of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” showed that they could mix traditional sounds and modern sensibilities into a winning combination.
It’s Just the Night continues in that vein, although it also brings to fruition McCoury’s disappointing trend of relying on other people’s songs. Out of 14 cuts on It’s Just the Night, only one—the instrumental “Hillcrest Drive”—bears a McCoury songwriting credit. The rest are supplied by various songsmiths, including two more from Richard Thompson (“Dry My Tears and Move On” and “Two-Faced Love”) that bookend the record. Does it matter? Sometimes. McCoury’s a darn fine songwriter, and it’s a shame to see him taking a break, but his band has proven it knows what to do with material from other people’s pens.
In fact, several songs from It’s Just the Night are sure to become live McCoury favorites. “Asheville Turnaround” is an on-the-road-to-see-my-baby ode like Springsteen might have written if he’d been raised on an Appalachian front porch. “Let an Old Racehorse Run” rides the memorable metaphor of a domesticated man as a retired racehorse, and the title track is tailormade for some spooky, dimmed stage lights (although it will be a shame to lose the Fairfield Four’s resonant backing vocals). “I Can Hear the Angels Singing”, drenched in gospel harmonies, fits right in amongst a whole host of spirituals already in McCoury’s catalog. “My Love Will Not Change” is an absolute barnburner full of charged banjo and mandolin.
Naturally, the entire record is played with impeccable precision, with solos, melodies, and harmonies woven together like panels on a gorgeous patchwork quilt. Even on the cuts that don’t especially stand out (of which there are two or three), the playing is flawless. When the group is obviously inspired, though, there’s little in bluegrass to top it. For example, when McCoury sings “Let an Old Racehorse Run” like it’s the story of his life, the band, as if sensing this, gives him the backing he deserves. And it’s not all about fancy picking, as a tradition-fueled track like “I Can Hear the Angels Singing” or a leisurely stroll in the dark like “It’s Just the Night” prove. McCoury’s band has been together for over a decade—each knows what the others are doing, when to step it up, and when to hang back.
So It’s Just the Night delivers exactly what’s expected: tight, professional bluegrass that mixes the elder McCoury’s rock solid foundation in tradition with his sons’ more modern leanings. It says something about their consistent excellence that an album like It’s Just the Night threatens to seem like “just another Del McCoury record.” When you’re talking about a band as gifted as McCoury’s, albums like this will always be a rare gift.