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Del McCoury

By Derek Halsey
September 2003

The story of the rise of the Del McCoury Band is an impressive one. These days they are playing before large crowds of young and old folks alike. Their roots are firmly planted in the traditions of bluegrass music, yet their open minds and new ideas have bridged the gap with all generations. Del McCoury has been playing bluegrass music for over 40 years. He was born in North Carolina, but moved north to Pennsylvania when he was a young kid. His family was well versed in the old time songs of the mountains, but after hearing a 78-speed record of Flatt and Scruggs that his brother G.C. played for him, he fell in love with bluegrass music. He decided to take up the banjo and tried to learn the three-finger Scruggs method of playing that was new at the time. That was not an easy task. Says Del, "Not many people played banjo like Scruggs. I didn't know anyone who played three-finger style, so I had to learn from records." Soon Del and his brother Jerry were playing all around the Baltimore area. That is where he met Jack Cook, who now plays with Ralph Stanley but then had his own band, The Virginia Playboys. Jack knew Bill Monroe, introduced Del to him, and that is when his career took a turn.

In 1963 Del became a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Monroe is considered the father of bluegrass music, which came together when his musical vision was rounded out with the addition of the innovative banjo playing of Earl Scruggs in 1945. He was a man who knew what he wanted from the musicians who worked for him. When Del McCoury came along as a young man he played the banjo, but Mr. Monroe had other plans. He said that he wanted Del in the band, but as a guitar player and lead singer. Del did not pass up the chance to learn from and work with the bluegrass legend and soon he was on the Grand Ole Opry with the Blue Grass Boys. 

After a year or so stint with Monroe, Del and his wife Jean made the move to California to play with the Golden State Boys. When that did not work out he decided to come back to York County, Pennsylvania and do what a lot of great musicians have had to do over the years, and that is to get a real job to raise a family with. He worked in the construction and logging industries, but still played his music on the weekends. Somewhere along the way the music took off again and he was back to playing it full time. Since then the Del McCoury Band has won many awards for their music, including winning the prestigious International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Entertainer Of The Year Award eight times. His band has evolved over the years and now consists of his son’s Ronnie, on mandolin, and Rob, on banjo, as well as Jason Carter on fiddle and Mike Bub on bass. One of the interesting things to happen to the popularity of the band in recent years has been their increasing appeal with young folks. Even though they still play the traditional bluegrass they have jammed with other performers such as Phish, Steve Earle, and they were a hit at the 70,000-plus Bonnaroo jamband festival last year.

As I spoke with Del he was in the middle of a late-2003 tour with the jam band group Leftover Salmon. Says Drew Emmett of Leftover, "He is such a great singer. He has a great stage presence and a great attitude. He’s very open. I think in bluegrass there tends to be people that are such traditionalists that it is hard for them to cross over into other genres. With Del, he is so open-minded to doing different things. I think that is what is so appealing to people is that somebody that is a traditionalist such as Del McCoury, a straight ahead bluegrass guy, can get on stage with a bunch of jamband guys like us and have a good time." Vince Herman, also of Leftover Salmon, puts it this way, "The young folks eat it up. I’ve learned so much. It’s been incredible. We got to go to my hometown of Pittsburgh to play and I had my family see this thing known as the Del McCoury Band, and they were blown away. Any musician who raises kids would love to do exactly what the McCoury Band is doing, to be out there on the road with your kids playing music. It’s a really inspiring thing to me. I’d have to say that they are the best bluegrass band in the world."

I talked to Del right after he won his 8th IBMA Entertainer Of The Year Award in October, but this time the award presentation happened a little differently. As Del was giving his acceptance speech Sonny Osborne and Ricky Skaggs came out from the back and stood right beside him at the podium. Del, of course, had no idea why they were there. But Sonny, after letting Del hang for a minute or two, said this; "Rick and I have been sent out here on a real important mission. We’d like to ask you a real important question up in here, this is really important; how would you like to maybe, on October 25th, 2003, become the newest member of the Grand Ole Opry?" Needless to say, the crowd went nuts, and Del was thrilled.

Del, when Sonny Osborne and Ricky Skaggs came out to give you the news of your Opry membership you seemed really surprised. Did you know about it at all?

I sure didn’t. My manager knew, Chris Harris, Stan Strickland, I think these guys, my booking agents, they knew, but none of us did, my wife or anybody else.

What were you thinking when Sonny and Ricky came out there and stood beside you at the podium?

When those guys came out there I thought, ‘Well, those guys are going to pull a joke on me.’ I know those two birds, you know (laughing). I still thought, ‘Well now, what do they have up their sleeve,’ and they asked me what I was doing October 25th and I still didn’t suspect nothing. But then soon after that I started thinking, and I saw Pete Fisher (Grand Ole Opry General Manager) earlier tonight and then I put like two, and three, and four together. And then I thought, ‘Oh, maybe that is what that is.’ It was a surprise.

What does becoming a member of the Grand Ole Opry mean to you?

It’s great. It’s the greatest honor I think any musician can have, to be a member of the Opry. Especially to somebody like me that has listened to the Opry since I was, well I’m 64 now, and I have listened to it since I can first remember. My Dad and my brother would always set up and listen to the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night. So, I’ve been listening to it for so long, and played on it with Bill Monroe in 1963 as just a young guy.

Do you remember much about that first Opry appearance? Were you nervous?

Yeah, and I still am when I walk onto that stage. I’m still nervous. I don’t mind walking on any stage when I go and do a show. When I walk out there and do it I’m nervous, you know, but I sing about two songs and I just relax, but that Opry is not that way. You are nervous the whole time you’re out there. I am.
Well, it has been 40 years since that first appearance on the Opry with Mr. Monroe. After that you left him to go out to California with the Golden State Boys, and eventually came back to Pennsylvania and got a real job. What was the decision making process like with all of that?

First I got married, moved to California, and got a job with a band out there that had a television show which was good, the Golden State Boys. But then I moved back home and started raising a family and when I did that I felt like I better get, as you said, a real job. I still played music. I never did quit playing music. I got this job to where I could play on the weekends, and I even recorded records all through that time. But when you’re young you can handle a lot of things on your plate. I could work all week, and I was fortunate that I could take off and play places that were far away. I traveled a lot then.

When did you get to the point where you could go back to music full time?

When the boys were grown, actually. I just quit working because we were in financially well enough shape that I didn’t have to work and I could start playing full time and just see what would happen. The thing about it was is that things got better fast really, because when I started to concentrate more on my music and recording everything got better. Naturally it would, you know. All of those years I depended on my work to make a living and the music was something that was always up here, I always played it every chance I’d get, but it wasn’t the best quality because I didn’t play it full time.
Let’s talk about your award-winning band for a minute. Mike Bub just won his 4th IBMA Bass Player of the Year award, and Jason Carter just won the IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year award. How did Mike and Jason find their way into the band?

Well, it’s funny how that happens. When I moved back down here to Nashville, which has been about 11 years ago now I think, the fiddle player that was with me at the time, and the bass player at the time, didn’t want to move down here. Which I couldn’t blame them, they actually lived in Maryland, both of them. Well, one lived in Virginia, the bass player lived in Virginia, and the fiddle player lived in Maryland, which was still not far from where I lived in Pennsylvania. But anyway, Jason lived up in eastern Kentucky, which was a long way for him to drive to PA or here, either one, because he played with me a while up there. He is from Greenup, Kentucky and after we moved here he drove back and forth for about a year. You see, Ronnie moved here before I did, my son. He moved here about six months or so before we did, him and his wife, and he got acquainted with Mike Bub because he played at the Station Inn with those guys. So that was how Mike Bub came into the band, through Ronnie. Jason started before Mike did, and that is how they came into the band. I auditioned quite a few people, but those two guys got the job.

So when you auditioned Jason he impressed you more than the others?

Yeah, he was only 19, man, and there were some professional fiddle players that were a lot better than him at the time because he was young. But, I could hear something in his playing. I could hear the blues coming out of him. That was just a natural thing for Jason. And, I might not have heard it in some of the others.

My guess is that he got excited when he found out that he was hired.

I am sure he did. He didn’t show it that much, but I am sure he was really excited. He hadn’t been out of school that long.

Mike Bub was more established and was playing a lot with Lonesome Standard Time when you found him. How did it go from there?

Yes, and with his own band the Weary Hearts with Butch Baldassari, Chris Jones, and the banjo player in the band was Alison Krauss’ banjo player Ron Block. And then he came with us.

How did the decision for you to move to Nashville come about?

Well, I’ll tell you what, when the kids got all grown and me and my wife didn’t have to work that hard to keep the family going, they kind of went on their own and then they were playing in the band too, it got a lot easier. Then we decided, eventually, to move down here because I hadn’t been here since 1963. I lived here when I worked with Bill Monroe. And my booking agent was here. I had several agents through the years. I thought, ‘Well, it would probably be better if I just moved down there and try it and see what happens.’ We were fortunate that the Grand Ole Opry would use us on the show, and there are plenty of recording studios here, it was just better. By this time they had an airport. When I worked with Bill Monroe they didn’t have an international airport. They do now. We flew a lot. A lot of the dates we had to fly to so it made it handier. When I lived in PA Baltimore was my airport. That was about an hour away, and now I am only 20 minutes from the airport. There were a lot of advantages to coming here so we decided to do it. And, you know, I kept the house up there in Pennsylvania, and it’s still there. I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to sell it because you never know. We might have to go back there.’ So I still have the one in PA. My neighbor is a retired guy from the electric company, he used to climb poles, did that all of his life. He is retired now and didn’t have anything to do so he mows the place and there are two acres to mow. It’s got a barn on it, and a house, and he watches the house. He’s been looking after the house for 11 years now. Of course I pay him good to do that, you know, but if it wasn’t for him I don’t know what I’d do. I’d have to sell it, I guess, because we’re never there. But we are thinking about going there Thanksgiving weekend because we told them to not book anything then.

Tom Garber at Rebel Records recently sent me some of your early releases that they still have in stock and Ronnie was already playing with you in the early 1980’s. When did he join the group?

He came about 1980, I think it was 1980 or ’81, but he didn’t record with me yet. But, I think he recorded in ’83. We went to Europe on a month tour and he was still in school and he said, ‘Dad, why don’t you talk with my principal. I want to go over there.’ I said ‘No, you can’t do that. You have to stay here and stay in school.’ It was his first year to play with me and he had played that summer. This tour fell in the fall of the year so I thought, well, it won’t hurt nothing so I went and talked to his principal and he asked me where all I was going. We were covering all of Europe, all of free Europe. I was going to play England, Scotland, Ireland, we were going to play Germany, and Belgium, and Denmark, Sweden, there was one plan for France and Switzerland but those fell through. But anyway, we had a months work over there, one day after another, so his principal said, "You know, I believe he would learn more going over there than he would here.’ And he didn’t even have to make up his work. He let him go. I couldn’t believe that, but he let him go.

I interviewed JD Crowe for Gritz a while back and he talked about the good reception that he received in Japan. Did you ever tour Japan?

Yeah, the first one I did was like a month after JD was there. We were there in 1979, this was before Ronnie was in the group. I still had Herschel Sizemore with me, and we followed JD by just a month, or a week, something like that. JD had Keith Whitley with him. We did a ’79 tour, and then we did an ’86 tour of Japan, and the last one I did was in ’93. They want us to come back, but I’d rather stay here. There are just too many good places to play in this country without having to go overseas. They call offering a lot of money to go, airline tickets, all expenses paid, and everything. The boys would like to go as it’s something new to see, but hey, we’ve got everything we need right here. I can tell you that for sure.

I first saw Robbie play banjo live at an Earl Scruggs tribute in Dayton, Ohio a couple of years ago and he impressed me a lot. He seems to have really done his homework. It isn’t easy to teach your own kids how to play instruments. How did you handle that?

You know, I wanted to go to that, but I couldn’t. I had so many things I had to do. But, they played from the time they were so young. I don’t know, they just took to it like a duck to water. Once they started they never did quit. They stayed right with it. I’d guide them a little bit in the beginning, and hear them playing and tell them, ‘This note goes here,’ and it might be all they needed for whatever they were trying to do.  I have to tell you something about Rob. We played out in California for the Israel Salute to America I think, and it was a national TV show and that Douglas boy was one of the emcees. Mike Douglas, and it was broadcast here and in Israel at the same time. It was just barely getting to be daylight in Israel. I remember seeing it on the screen. We were doing it live here and there was a lot of people on the show. Anyway, the piano player from New Orleans was on that show, the guy that sings like Frank Sinatra, Harry Connick Jr., and it so happens that he likes the banjo. He was standing there talking to Rob about his playing, and the thing that’s different about Rob is the space between his notes. You know, I had never
thought about that. And evidently Harry has heard them all from the way it sounded to me. He plays piano but he has heard all of the banjo players. He tries to play himself. And they are similar, pianos and banjos, which I didn’t think of when I was growing up, but they are. You can play a roll on a piano. And he said the thing about Rob’s playing, and he was really bragging on him, is the space between the notes. It’s not the notes you play, the space between them is what makes him unique. I listened for that later and I know now what he was talking about.

You grew up playing banjo yourself. When was the last time you picked up a banjo to play?

About 1963. I mean, that’s the last time I seriously played it. I have played one since then, but I don’t even have one in the house anymore. I let Rob have mine.

So, when Bill Monroe had you switch from banjo to guitar that was it for your banjo playing?

I probably lost interest after that, but I played it for ten years. I knew that I could play with Bill, I knew that it was no problem. But, he put me at playing guitar and singing lead. That was a challenge, to say the least. But I think I liked the challenge.

You seem to bring up your love for the blues often. Where did that come from?

You know, I don’t know. I don’t know, but it’s kind of the way I’ve always sung. I liked the duets with Jimmy Martin and Bill Monroe and I had to sing those songs, you know. I was there about ten years after Jimmy and he was still doing a lot of those numbers. I had to sing them and I had to sing them that way. I was mainly a tenor singer before I went with Bill Monroe. I was a natural tenor, but my voice, my range, dropped after I sang lead for a year with him. I could tell. It dropped a little bit. And, I sung every part before I went with Bill. I sung baritone and bass. I have a pretty good range. I can’t sing the real low notes. It’s according to what key it’s in. Usually if a gospel tune is in A or B I can sing the bass on it. I sang bass with Reno and Harrell. I played with them a little bit back in, I think it was ’68. Don Reno and Bill Harrell. While I was with them Red Smiley came back and by the time I quit he had come back full time. Red had dropped his band by this time, and he came back in with Don and Bill. My brother Jerry was playing bass for them at that time. And, Red died while he was there, about a year after I left. A shame, he was a great singer and guitar player.

Did you listen to the blues back then outside of bluegrass?

Never heard it before. I never did. But you know, this music will lend itself to that. I always thought it did. A lot of those old mountain ballads though, that was mountain blues. My mother was from the mountains of North Carolina and she sang those old ballads that I thought, at the time, were from here. But heck, they were from across the water. People brought them over here from Scotland, Ireland, those old ballads. They were the lonesomest sound in the world. When I heard Ralph Stanley the first time, when I heard him sing that ‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’ from 1947, I thought, ‘Well, he sounds just like Mama.’ And he did on that song. She is from Mitchell County. Her and my Dad both were from western North Carolina. The closest town was Johnson City, Tennessee. I think a lot of that sound came from Scotland and Ireland. And then there is the delta blues and they are different. They are kind of slow, but at the same time music is so related too. I found that out as I got older, that music is related. It all is."

Jerry Douglas produced a couple of your albums from the 1990s. How did you hook up with Jerry?

Well, when we moved here (Nashville), and I guess the first record we did, it might have been The Deeper Shade Of Blue. He wanted to produce so that's the way it came out. He is a great player. He's really good. He is just one of those gifted guys. You know, he's just got that gift, and he started playing so young. He started playing with his Dad there in Ohio when he was just a kid. And, when I'd say, 'Jerry, play some Dobro on this tune,' he would say, 'No, no, it doesn't need Dobro.' But he did on a couple. He'd play a little backup or something. But, he just wanted to produce us like we sounded. That's what he wanted to do. He didn't play on hardly any of it. He didn't want to. We would say, 'C'mon Jerry now, play a little on this.' 'OK, I'll play a little backup.' That's all he would do. If he thought it fit, he would. I think he played on a couple, just a couple. But, he figured that his job on this record was to produce and arrange. He is good at arranging stuff. He's really good at that. He will say, with the instruments, 'Now, you do this part,' and so on. He is good at putting it all together. He didn't want to play, he wanted to arrange and produce. And that is two different things, you know. I think Ronnie picked up a lot of things from him about arranging, and I know he does it now. I usually just think about the songs, and about singing the songs, and about what key to do the songs in, and about what tempo to do the songs in. And then Ronnie, he will take the instruments, all of them, with help from the rest of the guys too, and he will kind of arrange the instrumental parts. And it takes teamwork like that to make a record.

You and Ronnie have produced the last two albums. How does that work?

Well, he gives me credit for coming up with a lot of the songs. And that is what a producer does, actually. Really, I have never had any trouble in coming up with songs, not realizing that is a producers job.

You have come up with such a wide variety of songs, especially on the last two albums. How do you go about choosing these tunes?

Well, people give us songs all year long. They’ll come up and hand you a tape, or most of the time it is CD’s now, they will hand you a CD with a couple of three songs they have written on it. We never have time to listen to them until the end of the year. We just put them in a box and when it comes time to record we will get them all out and listen to them and see what is there. At the same time there are so many songwriters in this town, there must be one million songwriters in this town. Naw, I’m just exaggerating there. But, there are a lot of great writers here and when they find out we’re going to record they get songs to us. It’s the process of elimination. You end up with a hundred, two hundred songs and you have to listen to all of them to find out what you would like to do. It makes me lazy about writing. I used to put at least one song or two that I wrote on a record, and this last time I didn’t because I had all of this great material. But it just comes from everywhere.

Are there any interesting stories about where the songs come from?

There is one that came from Yorktown, PA up there where I used to live. It’s the funniest thing; we had this tape from this guy in Virginia who sent us a whole bunch of songs that bands in central Virginia had recorded. New material. I saw this one song that said ‘Presley’ on it. That’s all it said, ‘Presley’, ‘writer Presley,’ you know. And, I liked that song and I learned it and I thought, ‘this is really a hard-core bluegrass song I’d like to put on this record.’ So Ronnie tells me, ‘That might be Dean that wrote that.’ I said, ‘No, that didn’t come from Dean. That came from up there in Virginia.’ Lo and behold, when Ronnie called about the writers, you know, you have to give them credit and copywriting and all of that, they found out it was Dean Presley, a friend of mine from up there whom I’d known for a long time. He is from West Virginia, from around Beckley. It’s called ‘I’m Afraid I Forgot The Feeling That I Had For You.’ It’s a great bluegrass number. I think it is the most hardcore song that we have on the record. But, they are there, you just have to look. The thing about it is, you got to find a song that suits you, that strikes your ear. I won’t record a song unless it strikes my ear. I’ll say, ‘I like that sound, or that story,’ or something about it. And that is what makes me want to learn it and record it. I don’t like to record anything where I am going to think, ‘I’m not going to sing this and like it.’   

In other words, watch what you record because you might be singing it for the next two years or more.

That’s it! You might have to sing it for a loooong time, so you better like it when you record it. (laughs) It’s true.

I have noticed that you will pick songs on occasion that tell some rather otherworldly tales in them. "All Aboard" and the title cut of the new album, "It’s Just The Night," are two examples. 

I know. The funny thing about “It’s Just The Night;” we wound up with this CD with about six songs on it, I think, and the only one I really liked was “It’s Just The Night.” I didn’t know where the CD came from. Nobody in the band remembered getting it. Sometimes somebody will remember, ‘Oh yeah, so-and-so gave me that in Roanoke, or down in Birmingham,’ and so on, but nobody could figure out where this thing came from. It just so happened that we were lucky and it had a phone number on it. Of course that was Ronnie’s job, to find out, and he called and this guy gave it to us, this CD of songs, at a college town on the other side of Charlotte. And the guy’s name is Van Eaton. He said, ‘I gave that CD to Rob when you guys played the college out here.’ So we knew where it came from but we didn’t know the guy yet. I worked it up and he said, ‘I didn’t figure you guys would record that song. I had it written and I thought, well, I’ll put it on there but they won’t record it. They’ll record one of these other bluegrass songs that I got on here.’ Which, none of the other ones struck me at all. It’s just a matter of taste. Anyway, we had never met the guy and we played the Bluegrass Concert Series at the Ryman, I think we were the first ones to play it in June, and we found out he lives in Knoxville. He drove to the show and boy, he was excited when he found out it was going to be the title cut of the record. He said that he had been writing songs for 18 years and it was the first time that he had a band of a name at all to record anything. So he was up in the clouds.

With the last two albums you have forged a connection with the English singer-songwriter-guitarist Richard Thompson. Your version of Richard’s "52 Vincent Black Lightning" was a big hit and a crowd favorite, and now you include two more songs written by him on the new album, "Dry My Tears And Move On," and "Two Faced Love." Have you ever met Richard?

You know, it’s a funny thing. A guy sent us that '52 Black Vincent,' he sent it on a tape and I asked Ronnie, ‘What do you think of this song?’ He is the one who found it and I said, ‘Man, I like that story.’ So, we worked it into the right key and everything to suit us and we recorded it. And then we did that cruise with Delbert McClinton. It was called the 'Blues Cruise,' last winter and we went to the Caribbean on a ship. While we were on this ship there were all kinds of songwriters there, a bunch of people playing on it, and this guy walked up to me and said, ‘I want to introduce myself, I’m Richard Thompson’s manager when he is here in the United States. I live in Santa Monica, California, and Richard was really tickled that you recorded his song. Have you heard anything else of his?’ I said ‘No, that’s the only thing I’ve ever heard.’ So he said, ‘I’ll send you everything I’ve got.’  So he sent me about three CDs and there were two on there that I really liked. Never thinking that they would both end up on the same record, but they did. We open up the record with one and close it with one, ‘I’ll Dry My Tears and Move On’ and ‘Two Faced Love.’ And I’ve never met him. He told me, ‘He wants to meet you. The next time he is in Nashville I’ll call you and we will go out and eat.’ I found out he is going to be in town this week, so I might get to meet him.

The cool thing about it is that your versions of the songs and his are completely different, especially "'52 Black Vincent."

Yeah, in the windup it gets really different. He’s got some great melodies, great stories and things that I like. But out of the three records though, those are probably the only two that I was interested in that he did.

On the title cut of the new album, "It’s Just The Night," you bring in the Fairfield Four to sing vocals with you. How did that come about?

That was Ronnie’s idea. He said, ‘Dad, I think I’ll call the Fairfield Four in to sing backup with you on that thing.’ I said, ‘What??’ I couldn’t hear that, but he had been thinking about it so I said, "Well, if you want to.’ So he called and yeah, they said they’d love to, so they came up to the studio and they worked on it about 20 minutes and they put it down. They sang right behind it.

As your popularity has increased you have had some gigs booked in front of huge crowds such as Merlefest.  For instance, at the Bonnaroo Festival you played in front of about 70,000 people. What was that like?

It’s really something, but it’s actually no different from playing in front of a big bluegrass crowd, a strictly bluegrass crowd, although it is a little louder. (laughs) Usually those kids, instead of hollering up requests, they will hold up big signs with requests for songs. Yeah, they did that down at Bonnaroo. They had a song wrote on a piece of plywood, or something, and it was on the end of a stick where they would hold it way up so you can see and do the requests. It’s kind of neat.

What songs were they asking for?

All of them, man. I couldn’t believe it. We could never get them all on. I mean, it’s all the songs I recorded, and this is going back to the 60’s. It’s funny; once you get a fan with these kids they’ll go back and buy every record they can find on you. They were requesting songs I don’t even remember.

As we speak you are wrapping up a tour with Leftover Salmon. How is that going?

Yeah, we just finished a part of the tour with Leftover Salmon. They call themselves a Cajun, slam grass band. I believe it is Cajun, slam band, jam band, or something like that. (laughing). Anyway, those guys really like John Hartford and they do some of his songs. One they do is that ‘Boogie.’ (Up On The Hill Where They Do The Boogie) It’s really great, the way they do it. We ended another part of the tour in St. Louis at the Mississippi Nights concert, (John Hartford’s home town) and they did it there and, man, they tore the house down. They open with acoustic, and then we do acoustic, then they come out with their electric, and then we come out and do a little acoustic with them, and then they do some more electric. It’s a long show, about five hours. Anyway, I heard them do that for the first time and when they came off I said, ‘Is that the song that John Hartford wrote?’ to Vince, and he said, ‘Yeah, but it ain’t the way John did it. Course, when the house is full you can kind of stretch the envelope.’ And it was packed, man. It was standing room as far as you can see. There was nobody sitting down. It was packed all the way to the back. It was about a half city block.
Do you think that the time you jammed with Phish was the beginning of your band getting the attention of the younger crowd?

Hmm, I could see it before that even. I don’t know if it was the booking agent that we had, booking us in different places. You see, we have this booking agent now, Monterey Peninsula they are called, there in Monterey, California, and in Nashville and New York City they have offices, and I have a manager now who does a lot of thinking about what to do. You know, ‘turn this booking date down, and book this one even if it doesn’t pay as much as that one did.’ Knowing what to do is a lot of it. It takes a big team. If you want to get bigger you have to do that, I guess. If you don’t want to get big it’s best not to.

It seems to be working as the young folks are coming out to see you.

It is amazing to me. I cannot figure why. I am not doing anything any different than I always did. But, young people in general are gravitating towards this music. I think they figure that it’s real. It’s a hard music to play and sing, you don’t have a lot of electric devices to make things sustain, and a lot of them have learned to play it because it’s challenging.
Well, I was going to ask you if you ever thought you would need a team like that, but even Bill Monroe ran his own Monroe Talent Agency back in the day.

Yeah, he had his own talent agency there. I’m sure they made some wrong decisions, you know, but still, he was just so big by that time. But when I was playing with him he wasn’t, he was kind of small yet. But that was in ‘63.

Yes, he and bluegrass music in general went through a lean period back then.

The rock and roll really hit hard and when it hit it was hard on all the country stars, the bluegrass stars, Bill Monroe. He got disgusted there in the 50’s and it took him a long while to get back at it. But you know, it’s the funniest thing, it’s ironic because those hot rock and roll guitar pickers would play Bill Monroe licks on them guitars, man, right and left. Like Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry, if you listen to that stuff it’s right from Bill Monroe’s ‘Bluegrass part one,’ and all that. He’s playing the same licks, man, right to the ‘T.’ Of course, they’ll tell you that though.

And, of course, Elvis went up to Bill Monroe and asked him if he could record "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" and he did and it was a hit. What did you learn from your time playing with Bill Monroe?

From working with Bill, I probably learned a lot of things that I don’t even realize now. I had worked with a lot of bands before that, but I was unsure of a lot of things before I went to work with Bill. Once I went to work with him I found out that timing, he had such great timing, it was easy for me to play with him because I didn’t know until that time that I had good timing. When I went to work with Bill I said, ‘Well, that’s the easiest band that I ever played with.’ And, it was because the timing was perfect, just right there. And you could sing and play, and the hardest thing for me to do was to learn all of the words to the songs. I had been a banjo player up until that time and he wanted me to play guitar and sing lead. I’m sure I learned a lot about singing from singing with him because he was so powerful, you know. At that time he was 52 and he was in his prime. He was really hot. And to sing with Bill Monroe you had to really put out. I probably learned stage presence from him too, just being around him. When you learned from Bill, he taught by example. He never would say ‘do this, or do that, sing here, or play here.’ Never. He never got on me about nothing. He didn’t like lazy people. And if you worked, and I was used to working hard because I was raised on a farm just like he was, if you got in there and worked with him and could see when things had to be done, like if you were not on stage and you saw that things had to be done, you would get along with Bill. But if you were lazy you didn’t get along with Bill Monroe. He would ride you until you left. I mean, if he would have rode me at all I would have left.  But he didn’t. We would just tune up and go out on that stage and work it for all it was worth. And, that is just the way he was. He had a strong work ethic. You know, I’m thankful for the days I spent with him. And then I quit. Kids do funny things. I stayed a year and then I left.
Do you still drive the tour bus when you guys are on the road?

I still do. Yeah, I still do.

So Del, where do you think bluegrass music will go from here?

Well, it’s a great art form. It’s still slowly growing, which is good. It didn’t hit like that early rock and roll did. It just slowly grew, and I think it is in good shape. I really do. I’ll tell you, when ‘O Brother’ hit the record companies started to really scratch their heads. (laughs) They were saying to themselves, ‘What are we doing wrong here?’ I’m sure that happened. They took these guys, and the good thing about that one song that they selected to play on the radio, “Man Of Constant Sorrow,” is that they were great singers and great pickers. It wasn’t something that was watered down like that song from the movie Deliverance that was a watered down version of that [Don] Reno and [Arthur] Guitar Smith tune.  You know, those guys really picked that tune. That O Brother, Where Art Thou  song, that was the real thing. And I’m glad of that. I’m just glad the public got to hear the real thing for a change. And they took to it like they were going to like it.     

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