I caught The Del McCoury Band live a little while back, and it was a real eye-opener. I’d been to several mannered bluegrass festivals in the past, but the crowd for Del McCoury was one of the rowdiest I’ve ever encountered, regardless of genre. It struck me as strange — here were five guys dressed to the nines, looking like televangelists, and playing music that makes a Southern boy like me remember my toe-tapping, Opry-watching grandma. They were met by clinking beer bottles and a ton of hootin’-and-hollerin’ — hardly a restrained reaction. At times, it was annoying, but you couldn’t deny the life and enthusiasm coursing through the crowd.
At its best, bluegrass evokes that kind of response. We can all identify with its concerns: coming home to find your lover’s suitcases packed, the bonds of family, ghosts (both figurative and literal), and the struggle to simply live a good life. Often steeped in gospel, it’s also marked by a serene sense of belief that’s in marked contrast to our harried modern lives. In short, it reduces our problems and hopes to their most essential, evocative qualities. Presented with straightforward playing and some of the best harmonies this side of the afterlife, this unassuming music can raise the roof of any building it’s in.
The Del McCoury Band are capable of just that kind of transcendence. Firstly, they can flat out play. With multiple group and individual awards, the group epitomizes sterling bluegrass playing. Mandolin player Ronnie McCoury, banjo picker Rob McCoury, upright bassist Mike Bub, and fiddler Jason Carter are absolute monsters on their instruments. What prevents a soul-bleached, noodly newgrass pickfest, though, is the spiritual and historical anchoring provided by elder statesman Del McCoury. Playing since the ’40s and even becoming one of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in the ’60s (his rendition of Monroe’s “Get Down on Your Knees and Pray” is one of the most gorgeous, haunting things you’ll ever hear), McCoury has both feet firmly in the classic bluegrass tradition.
McCoury’s voice, a clear tenor that age has only improved, can range from tearful Hank Sr. style country to true gospel pleading. He wields a tear-in-your-beer twang on “Learnin’ the Blues”, singing about listening to the same country song ten times. His great vocal on the plainspoken religion of “Recovering Pharisee” ecstatically details the daily struggle of trying to live the “life of the great I Am”, while the chorus of “A Good Man Like Me” is a pure high lonesome lament. Regardless of the subject, there’s a vibrant humanity in the music that Del McCoury’s band chooses to play, and which comes through in his voice.
What also sets the Del McCoury band apart is the blend of the elder McCoury’s traditional values with his sons’ more modern leanings. Only three cuts on Del and the Boys are McCoury-penned (one of them revisits Del McCoury’s classic “A Good Man Like Me”), so there’s a lot for the band to choose from in terms of material. Mostly, they opt for new material from Nashville songwriters, although they give a nice nod to old-time Opry star Jeannie Pruett’s “Count Me Out”. This openness made them natural foils for Nashville rebel Steve Earle on 1999’s The Mountain (although Earle’s rowdy ways and vocabulary reportedly led to their parting ways). Apart from their ferocious playing, the younger McCoury’s bring a youthful sensibility to the band and introduce songs that wouldn’t initially seem like bluegrass naturals. On 1999’s The Family, it was John Sebastian’s ultra-smooth “Nashville Cats”. Here, the standout is Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, a showstopper that benefits from an understated mix of banjo, mandolin, and fiddle.
Del and the Boys is a textbook example of what makes The Del McCoury Band such able bluegrass ambassadors. From the haunted train tale of “All Aboard” to McCoury’s Kentucky ode “The Bluegrass Country”, the album displays one lush bluegrass shade after another. Most bluegrass bands would feel fortunate to pull off one or two of these songs. By creating an album with 12 such gems, the Del McCoury band show that for all their past excellence, they’re just now hitting their stride.