Getting his start with Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys in 1963, McCoury eventually left the group and went out on his own. That move has since spawned one of the most successful and storied careers in the history of American music, with McCoury the recipient of 31 International Bluegrass Music Awards (including nine “Entertainer of the Year” and four “Male Vocalist of the Year” honors) and the Grammy for “Best Bluegrass Album” (2006, 2014).
McCoury is a beacon of light for the root traits of the genre: intricate technical prowess, sincere artist/audience connectivity, and a true sense of self that aims to not only preserve the history of bluegrass, but also ensure its vitality that continues to captivate the listener by the simple, yet sacred, act of vibrating strings and wood.
Smoky Mountain News: After you left Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys in the 1960s, you started working in construction and logging. What was it that kept you focused on making a career out of music? I mean, that seems like a lot of patience and determination.
Del McCoury: Well, you’re right. From the time I quit Bill Monroe, I got married and then I started raising a family. And I thought to myself, “Man, music is not paying off that much. I better get a day job.” So, at first, I got a job with my father-in-law. He had a sawmill.
Then, my wife’s uncle, one day he came to me [in 1971] and he said, “I just bought a skidder and I don’t have an operator.” Rubber tires with a winch and cables. You go into the woods and pull out them logs out. He said, “Can you run one?” I said, “Well, I’ve run everything else. I can probably learn to run that thing.” Of course, I grew up on a farm running tractors and trucks. So, I worked at that from the time I left Bill Monroe until the kids got out of school.
SMN: But, you never lost sight of music.
DM: No, I kept [at it]. You know, I got my first recording contract in 1967. [At that time], I was working at a place called Peach Bottom. It was a nuclear plant [in Pennsylvania] that they were building. It was the one down river from Three Mile Island. They were building Reactor #2. I worked there all winter. I was working there when I recorded my first record in 1967.
And there were a lot of clubs, mainly in Baltimore, [Maryland], that you could work weekends playing music. I always played music. I never did quit. I kept playing and working a day job. I even started playing bluegrass festivals, first one I played was in 1966 in Virginia.
SMN: When you were coming up, you had these pillars of bluegrass like Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. And now people look at you as a pillar of a genre. Is that kind of a surreal thing?
DM: It is for me, because when I think about this music and those guys, I idolized all of them when I was growing up. So, when people would be thinking of me in that way today, it’s kind of weird to me. It’s hard for me to take a compliment.
Those guys? In my mind — and it’s a fact — they paved the way for us all. Those guys ran those tough roads. Of course, with Bill Monroe, I know what it was like, and even with my band. But, nowadays we have nice buses to ride in and we can fly if we want to. Those guys [back then] hit them two-lane roads, and half the time they were dirt roads.
Even when I was with Bill Monroe, I can remember running those [turnpikes] in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, and some freeways out in California. But, a lot of [the roads] were U.S. routes that we ran. I remember running that old 66 going out to California. Route 66. You had to go through every town there was, going through every red light.
SMN: You’ve had this incredible life of touring and recording, meeting people from all walks of life. You’ve been all over the world with your music. What has that taught you about what it means to be a human being?
DM: Well, you have to treat people like you want to be treated yourself. And I always did that. I guess my mother and father taught me that growing up. I never had any problems getting along with people, even though some of them were hard to get along with.
People used to say that Bill Monroe was hard to get along with. But, I found he wasn’t hard to get along with. He was a man of few words. He didn’t spend a whole lot of time telling you how to play a guitar or sing a part. You just go up there and did it with him, and you’d learn by what he did. And I thought that was the best way to do it — and it was.
Want to go?
The Maggie Valley Festival Grounds will host a drive-in concert series with bluegrass icons The Del McCoury Band on Saturday, Oct. 3.
The show begins at 7:30 p.m. Gates open at 6 p.m. Social distancing and Covid-19 protocols will be in place. Meals are available to pre-purchase. Beverages will be available for purchase onsite.
Hosted by The Grey Eagle and Worthwhile Sounds, tickets are available at www.thegreyeagle.com.