PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

Del McCoury: High Lonesome and Blue

Katie Zerwas

Del Mccoury

High Lonesome and Blue

Label: Rounder
US Release Date: 2004-04-20
UK Release Date: 2004-05-03
Amazon
iTunes

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.