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Volume 26, Number 6 — June 2019

McCoury Band History

The Del McCoury Band performs on the State Street Stage during Bristol's Rhythm & Roots music festival. (By Earl Neikirk/Bristol Herald Courier)
The Del McCoury Band performs on the State Street Stage during Bristol's Rhythm & Roots music festival. (By Earl Neikirk/Bristol Herald Courier)

Legacy Goes Back to 1927 Bristol Sessions


*** Published Friday, Sept 17 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***

Del McCoury is living proof of the impact of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, because one of its alumni helped open the door for his distinguished, five-decade career.

McCoury returns to the Twin City tonight as one of the headliners of the 10th annual Rhythm & Roots Reunion, a music festival designed to help celebrate Bristol's musical heritage and its continuing impact on all forms of music. The Twin City is officially known as the birthplace of country music because of those recordings of artists like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in a makeshift studio in downtown Bristol.

Best known for his distinctive tenor vocals in the tradition of bluegrass father and former employer Bill Monroe, McCoury recounts a time when he met and played alongside Bristol Sessions artist Ernest "Pop" Stoneman and his family while playing clubs around Baltimore in the 1950s and early 1960s.

"We used to play a show in Washington D.C., and a guy who played at Bristol Ernest Stoneman was on that show with the Bluegrass Champs. He was one of the first to record at Bristol. He had a whole bunch of kids and he moved his whole family to Maryland. That was the first time I met him. I'd seen them on TV," McCoury said during a phone interview this week.

Through those performances, McCoury met Jack Cook.

"Jack played with Bill Monroe. He was Bill's lead singer for about three years. It's funny because his [Cook] first gig was playing with the Stonemans on that television show. After they lost that, he [Cook] moved to Baltimore and I started playing for Jack. That got me acquainted with Bill Monroe because Bill came to town and needed Jack to go play a date with him in New York City. He didn't have a guitar player or a banjo player, so I went along too."

Monroe liked what he heard and, in 1963, invited McCoury to join Monroe's Bluegrass Boys, the group that defined the art form.

"I worked for Bill and that really got my career going in the early days," McCoury said, noting that Monroe made him the lead singer and switched him to guitar.

After more than a year of intensive touring, McCoury took a step back, left the group and returned home to Pennsylvania to work in the logging industry and support his family. But the music bug had taken hold and McCoury spent most of the two subsequent decades performing primarily on weekends.

"I thought I never would catch fire," he said.

It was the early 1990s before McCoury and a band that included sons Ronnie and Rob moved to Nashville but even then there was a backup plan.

"The kids were grown and we were independent, so we decided to move to Nashville and buy a house, but keep the house up there in PA so if things don't go right, we'll just sell the house in Nashville and go back," McCoury said.

He still owns that old Pennsylvania farmhouse, but concerns about a failed career have long since faded.

In the nearly 20 years since, McCoury has recorded and toured extensively, joined the Grand Ole Opry, earned a Grammy Award, and about 40 awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association.

The Del McCoury Band was again this year nominated for the coveted IBMA Entertainer of the Year Award, a title it captured nine times between 1994 and 2004. This year's awards ceremony is Sept. 30 in Nashville.

And in June, McCoury received a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

For a traditional artist, a surprising part of his legacy includes recording with a diverse array of talent before such experiments were en vogue. McCoury turned heads recording with the rock group Phish, country-rocker Steve Earle, Dierks Bentley and Vince Gill and lending his distinctive bluegrass styling to songs by rocker Tom Petty and The Lovin' Spoonful.

"I am open-minded about who I play with and the songs I record. It opened doors for me unknowingly," McCoury said. "Phish recorded one of my songs and they called me and wanted me to play their festival. We went up there to New York and I wondered what in the world we were doing. But they asked "what can we sing together?' I had no idea, and he said, "Do you know "Blue and Lonesome?" ' The same one Bill Monroe and Hank Williams wrote. So we did a bunch of bluegrass songs. There were 77,000 people there."

Many have become DelHeads, a nickname for hardcore McCoury fans.

McCoury has performed at an untold number of music festivals, but still vividly recalls the nation's first weekend bluegrass music festival, held in Virginia in 1965.

"Carlton Haney was the promoter of that first big July 4th bluegrass festival and I was the first non-professional band he hired. He started it without any help from Bill Monroe because Bill said, "Aw, that ain't gonna work.' So he started it in 1965 in Fincastle, Va., right out of Roanoke, and he booked Bill Monroe," McCoury said.

The lineup included virtually all of bluegrass' founding fathers Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin and the Stanley Brothers.

"It took Bill a few years to get it through his head that a bluegrass festival would work, even up in Bean Blossom" Indiana, where Monroe established his own event. "But he was a pretty stubborn guy, Bill Monroe was. He didn't want to do it because it wasn't his idea," McCoury said with a chuckle. "From there, bluegrass festivals busted out all over the country."

Much more than a bluegrass festival, the Rhythm & Roots Reunion hosts the Del McCoury Band at 9:45 tonight on the country mural stage. Before that, McCoury is scheduled to host a 6 p.m. workshop for the Virginia Folklife Foundation.

Other opening night headliners include Dr. Dog, The Infamous Stringdusters, Dale Ann Bradley and Kim Fox, Cadillac Sky, Missy Raines and The New Hip, Todd Snider with Great American Taxi, Wayne Henderson and Michelle Malone.

The lineup also includes the Whitetop Mountain Band, Elkville String Band, Chris Jones & The Night Drivers, Dale Jett, The Corklickers, Breaking Tradition, The New Familiars, Fire in the Kitchen and dozens more.

About 80 performances are set on four outdoor and 16 indoor stages that include the Paramount and Cameo theaters, Theatre Bristol, restaurants, coffee shops, bars and a dance tent.

In addition to music, the festival includes about 100 craft, gift and food vendors staged along a five-block section of State Street. The street will be closed to traffic about 5:30 a.m. today and remain closed until about midnight Sunday, Bristol Tennessee Transportation Engineer David Metzger said.

"We'll also close portions of select side streets in the downtown on both the Tennessee and Virginia," sides of town, Metzger said.

Limited parking is available along parallel downtown streets and private lots within three blocks of State Street. Festival attendees should obey no-parking signs, because both cities will tow illegally parked vehicles.

The festival will again operate free shuttle bus service to hotels around Interstate 81's Exit 7 in Bristol, Va., the Bristol Mall, the Earhart Campground adjacent to Bristol Motor Speedway and hotels along Volunteer Parkway in Bristol, Tenn. Buses are scheduled to run regularly Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

"We would certainly encourage people to do the shuttle because parking is at such a premium in the downtown area," Metzger said.

A! ExtraTopics: Music