Del McCoury has been making timeless bluegrass music for decades. Raised on the music of the seminal Bill Monroe and carried onward by his own unmatched talents, he gave birth to a new generation of musicians and fans to further the legacy of these deep-sewn roots. In a fitting tribute, Rounder Records has released a compilation of McCoury’s most popular and influential songs under the banner of its “Heritage” series. Digitally remastered and beautifully packaged, the album manages to stay true to the earthy sound of these soulful tunes. For fans of bluegrass and so-called “ol’ timey” music, Rounder’s series is a boon, but McCoury’s aesthetic reaches beyond the mere boundaries of nostalgia music. Whether it’s his straightforward lyrics, uncomplicated melodies, or edgy high-energy musicianship, there’s something on this record for any music-lover.
If you think you know bluegrass, but you’ve never heard Del McCoury, then you don’t know bluegrass, so check your expectations at the record store counter. You’ll find none of that new-fangled fluffy alt-country vocals or new country big beats and bucket hats here, just simple music for simple folk. Rather than modern angst-ridden or sugary-pop lyrics, the songs feature a kind of earthy poeticism that draws metaphor from the beauty of rural America, such as on “Lonesome Wind”, on which McCoury describes the wind that carries the news of his lost love. Conspicuously absent from the record’s timbre is the now ubiquitous over-produced and over-polished sound. Instead, McCoury’s sound is fresh and vibrant, each track maintaining the sense of a live jam session as the fiddle takes turns with the banjo, and the whole family joins in on the chorus, raising their voices in soaring harmonies that twist into a burning and melancholy twang. This is not simply pop music with a southern accent, but a sort of ethnic music with its own oral traditions and identity politics, as with songs like “Blackjack County Chains” that tells the story of southern chain gangs, sung in its own brand of rural English. Through his frequent collaborations with talented artists in country and bluegrass as well as his own talented kin, McCoury carries on a rich tradition of musical families and songs meant for friends and neighbors, not just labels.
To say that this is the music of “simple” country folk is not to say that the music is easy to listen to. With its simple melodies, raw yet elaborate instrumentals, backwoods timbres, and pronounced nasal dialect, today’s listeners could find this music as incomprehensible and distant as Bach or gamelon. What could today’s MTV-raised “shock and awe” generation find of relevance in music that seems to be paddling upstream in a raging river of flashy, synthesized, super-produced and techno-induced pop culture? One might argue that it wasn’t until the Coen brother’s wildly popular Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? that “ol’ timey” caught its stride; however, it’s more likely that McCoury’s popularity was concurrent with but not actually caused by the film’s release. Another explanation is that contemporary audiences are looking for something pop music hasn’t been able to offer them, but that they’ve come to find in folk traditions of bluegrass music. It could be a more “natural” or organic sound they’re after, since McCoury consciously shuns any technology more complex than amplifiers, but more probably it’s that particular breed of straight-shooting integrity and a cultural identity not yet co-opted by mass culture. As “traditional” as bluegrass is and has been in the grand scheme of American music, real “country and western” — much like country blues — has never really gone commercial, and probably never will since it ceases to really be “country” once it’s made glossy enough to pre-package and mass-market. Authenticity is a tough concept to pin down, but to quote the great Del McCoury himself, “I’m the bluest man in town”. And if that ain’t the God’s honest truth.
If you’re looking to find a good introduction to Del McCoury and bluegrass, this Rounder Records collection is a great place to start. Each track comes with commentary in the liner notes to give background, make a celebrity music connection, or simply tell a great McCoury story, and each track is certifiably classic and demonstrates a broad range of what bluegrass has to offer. Songs like “I Feel the Blues Moving In” churn with poignant melodies and mournful vocals, while rave-ups like “The Cold Hard Facts” feature the kinds of electrifying fiddle solos that even an axe-swinging rocker would envy. Don’t expect to find any hidden nuggets or diamonds in the rough, though; you’ll have to dig through the McCoury family album collection to find those, something that die-hards or new converts can do with the help of the aforementioned copious liner notes. The peculiar twang of bluegrass might be an acquired taste, its true, but it holds a central place in the history of popular American music that continues to resonate well into the present.