By Kevin Alan Lamb
A river is many things–but like music—a river never ages. It is a lifeforce carrying ancient lessons and blessings to every sentient being, soul, and stretch of the earth it reaches. We seek to identify its beginning and end—which is mostly a reflection of our limited understanding of life itself—though it is deep, abundant, and without the constraints of space and time. Humans may dam it, deplete it, and deny it as rightful error to these lands, but like music, its energy, inertia, and current are without deterrent. Few phenomena can be likened to such a sacred force for good; The Travelin’ McCourys are one of them.
From Siddhartha we learn that the same person never crosses the same river twice; similarly I contend that the same person never listens to the same song twice. As experience changes who we are, so too does it change the meaning of songs. For example, just now I listened to The Travelin’ McCourys’ cover of “Let Her Go” by Passenger, and for the first time it occurred to me that “her” wasn’t necessarily a lover, but perhaps a loved one, like a mother. Circumstance, choice, and life’s seasons challenge us to either flow with the river, adjusting our sights with the arising conditions, or swim against the fury of the current until we can no longer.
Born into the bluegrass tradition, The McCoury brothers—Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo)—flow from a source abundant and pure. Born in February of 1939, Delano Floyd McCoury (aka Del) is on a short list of the most influential and successful musicians in the history of the genre. In June of 2010, Del received a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts in the field of folk and traditional arts. He has won 31 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, including Entertainer of the Year four consecutive times (nine total). In 2004 he was nominated for the Best Bluegrass Album Grammy Award for It’s Just The Night, and in 2006 he won his first Grammy Award, in the same category, for The Company We Keep.
Blessed with years on the road with their dad in the Del McCoury Band, Ronnie and Rob continue to manifest innovative pathways for traditional bluegrass into the 21st century. Joined by fiddler Jason Carter, bassist Alan Bartram, and latest recruit Cody Kilby on guitar, The Travelin’ McCourys are the only group to have each of its members recognized with an International Bluegrass Music Association Award for their instrument at least once. They are acknowledged by their peers and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees The Allman Brothers Band, Phish, and Keller Williams for being both historic and progressive.
We honor the river and our ancestors by taking heed of the wisdom and abundance their lifeforce delivers. Music tells an ancient story, singing an ancient song, insisting an ancient plea for humanity to be at peace with one another, mother earth, and all of her inhabitants.
“From the headwaters of Bill Monroe and the waves of Jerry Garcia to a sound both rooted and revolutionary, soulful and transcending that belongs only to the Travelin’ McCourys.”
At the age of nine Ronnie McCoury started taking violin lessons. At age 11 he gave it up to play sports. When he was 13-years-old he saw Bill Monroe perform, and decided to give the mandolin a try. After practicing for six months his dad invited him to join the Del McCoury Band in 1981. Del has an eye for talent; Ronnie has been named the International Bluegrass Music Association mandolin player of the year, eight consecutive years from 1993-2000.
Celebrating the 15th anniversary of DelFest, here’s my conversation with Ronnie McCoury ahead of The Travelin’ McCourys’ 2023 DelFest performance.
Do you recall a time, age, or moment when the gravity of who and what your dad (Del) is, represents, and ascribes meaning to, revealed itself to you?
Well, I guess I was fairly young when I realized how much fun my dad had playing music, you know? Outside of just being a dad, and doing things that needed to be done around the house, or working for a living, or whatever. But I realized how much fun he had playing music, and when I started playing with him I realized how much respect he had within the Bluegrass community. All through my teenage years, of course. Then, when I was probably about 20, and I had the chance to meet Jerry Garcia–well I had met him, but I had the chance to sell him some banjos in Washington, DC–, and before their show there, “The Grateful Dead”–I took my dad there–, and I think it was then that I realized, after Jerry Garcia had come and looked me in the eye (we were all sitting around the table talking), and he said:
“You know, your dad was a big influence to me when I started playing,” and then I knew that my dad was a pretty big deal. Outside of the Bluegrass community he was known. That’s probably one of the first times it really hit me that, well, my dad is a pretty big deal.
At what age did you start playing music together? Was it natural for you? Do you remember the first time (when/where) you shared the stage? What memories stay with you from the first time you saw Bill Monroe perform when you were 13?
I started playing the mandolin probably, just to turn 14. I had only been playing for six months, and my dad had me go on stage with him. It was Memorial Day weekend of 1981, and I never missed a show after that except for a few things. I’ve missed about four shows, maybe, in all these years. I believe it was just natural for me to do that because I just figured that my dad did it, and I would do it. I started on the violin, but later decided to play the mandolin, because I had seen Bill Monroe play live in New York City right before this. In 1980 I had been traveling some shows with my dad, I wasn’t really playing it, but I went to New York City in Lincoln Center, he was playing a package show with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, Del McCoury and the Dixie Pals, and I tagged along, and I was just kind of selling the merchandise, and something that night clicked with me: seeing Bill Monroe, and I remember on the bus ride back home I said “I really want to get a mandolin.”
My father had already put on shows in Pennsylvania; he promoted them himself, and he opened the show for Bill Monroe, the Bluegrass Boys, a couple of nights at different times, and Bill came to the house, and I was about probably 9 years old, and that’s kind of when I got the bug a little bit about music. Around the same time I had seen another guy, Marty Stuart, playing the mandolin, and he was a teenager in Lester Flatt’s Bluegrass band, so I think it was the combination of these guys that made me want to play.
Six decades, and a half-century of Bluegrass for Del. Twenty seven years for The Del McCoury Band, with but a single change in membership. Please share the ingredients which make this unprecedented stability possible?
I guess, I think the stability of this band, the Del McCoury Band, and just having one band member change in the last close to thirty years in Nashville is a testament to my father. Yes, he has two sons in the band who never made any changes, ‘cause we respect him, and love playing music with him, and learn from him still. But I think Jason Carter is the same way, he came, and he was just 18 or 19 years old with us, and I think he has a lot of respect for my father, and his music, and the way he carries himself. Before all that, yeah, there were plenty of changes along the way, just because people change, and they maybe had day jobs, and this-and-that, because that before we got to Nashville and really made this a full time run at it.
For someone who doesn’t know who The Del McCoury Band is, or what makes DelFest the sacred space it is, please paint us a picture of the annual offering.
I think that, for those who may not know, who the Del McCoury Band are, or DelFest, or know of the music anyhow, I could say that what my father has done to broaden Bluegrass music is commendable, and the different folks outside of the Bluegrass music that respect him is really amazing to me. He is someone that always has been himself, and played and sung songs that mean something to him. DelFest is a place that we kind of created to allow the music that we have crossed paths with, whether it was New Orleans Jazz, or some of the jam band folks, or even outside of that, with fish, or David Grisman. It’s just a place that has a lot of different music at one festival for folks to enjoy, and what we try to do is to keep family an important part of our festival, and I think that if you would come, you would see what we mean.
Name an artist or artists on the DelFest lineup that you share a particularly strong bond/chemistry/history with.
I would say Sam Bush and I have a very good bond. He happens to be a hero of mine, and we have played a lot of music together through the years, and myself being a mandolin player it’s hard to not be influenced some way or another by Sam Bush. I have such respect for him, and what he has done with the instrument, and of course, his own band is incredible. I have the same sentiment for Peter Rowan. He and my father are just one of the few classic Bill Monroe Bluegrass boys side men that we have. Tim O’Brien is another who I have a lot of respect for, his playing in the scene, and his writing; he’s a dear friend.
Who are you most excited to see at DelFest ‘23?
I am very excited to see several band this year, including Sierra Ferrell, California Drops, The Stringdusters, there’s too many to mention, but I have only seen Saint Paul and the Broken Bones one time, so I guess that’s who I’m the most excited to see this year, making their first appearance at DelFest.
If a UFO landed during your set at DelFest, and you had the mic along with the opportunity to be ambassadors to humanity, what would you tell them?
If a UFO landed during DelFest, and I had the mic I would tell them, first: “Welcome to DelFest!” and I would say “you’ve landed in a place of peace, and love. Love for humanity, from the eldest, to the youngest, and love for music, the harmony, and the emotion of it. But most of all, welcome.” And then I would say “ET found home, tell the others.”
Please tell us something that most people might not know about DelFest.
For those of you who may not know, we do have a DelFest foundation that gives back to the community, to Allegany county mainly, and we have given over a half a million dollars back to the community with a lot of donations and fundraising, and things like that. Something we’re very proud of as a family.
What are some new heights the band is ascending to in ‘23?
I’m not sure of any new heights that we’re reaching as 2023 approaches here, but the band just continues to play as the Del McCoury Band and The Travelin’ McCourys, traveling across the country, and just doing what we do, and enjoying it, meeting new people, putting out new releases this year. That’s what we’re doing in 2023.
Are you hopeful that love and music can help heal humanity and the earth?
Well, I’m always hopeful that it heals most things, especially humanity. But as the song goes “a short time here, a long time gone.” So, while I’m here playing music for a living, and traveling around the world, I’ve tried to do my part to help heal. Music is the universal language, and I just try to kind of live my life like my father has before me, doing what he loves, and I see the joy he has brought to others in his lifetime that he’s been performing, and I’m sure that he is a healer by doing what he does, so, that’s what I want to do.
It’s not everyday that Jerry Garcia informs you of the influence your dad had on him, but he’s kind of a big deal if he does. Most of us won’t age as gracefully as Del, but that doesn’t mean we can’t strive to. Discover joy and peace within yourself, by inspiring it in others. Just in case you were listening for one, This is a Good Sound.