Late bluegrass pioneers Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley have long since left the Grand Ole Opry’s sacred wooden circle. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, too. But 83-year-old Del McCoury, a friend, contemporary, and collaborator to them all who joined the Opry in 2003, isn’t slowing down.
“The interest in music never has left me,” an ebullient McCoury says over the phone from his home in Nashville. “I can remember playing bluegrass festivals [where] I’d jam all night long with other guys, and I’d be lucky that my voice would hold up for my show the next day. I couldn’t do that now, but I still have the interest.”
Rooted in bluegrass but well-versed in other American storytelling staples like ragtime and country, McCoury landed a spot fronting Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1963. He has stuck to bluegrass ever since, releasing more than thirty albums while keeping his tour bus rolling. In the wake of the staggering success of the 2000 Coen Brothers classic O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its accompanying soundtrack, which reintroduced bluegrass to pop-music listeners, McCoury found cross-generational popularity by playing Bonnaroo and founding his own music festival, DelFest, in 2008.
Backed by his sons Ronnie, 54, and Robbie, 50, McCoury will release Almost Proud on February 18, his seventeenth album with his own Del McCoury Band, which Garden & Gun is proud to premiere below.
Your first break was fronting Bill Monroe’s band. How did you land such a plum gig?
The first time I met Bill Monroe, I was in Baltimore and had been playing the banjo probably ten years. You wouldn’t think so, but Baltimore was really a big bluegrass town. I got a job playing with a guy named Jack Cooke, and he had been with Bill down in Nashville for about three years before he quit Bill and moved up to Baltimore. Bill stopped in one night while we were playing, and during break, I heard them talking about going to New York City. And Jack said, “Well, do you have a banjo player with you?” So, here I go with them up to New York City. Bill offered me a job actually that night, and I didn’t take it. But eventually I did.
How did you deal with the concert industry shutdown when COVID hit in 2020?
We had that remedied back in the fifties. We used to play drive-in theaters and would get on top of the refreshment stand. They’d put a microphone up there and you’d be hooked into these speakers that people put on the windows inside their car. Between movies, we’d get up there and play music. And if we played a song that the people liked, they’d blow their horn. I said, “We’ll just go right back to that.” By the fall of that year, we did get some dates booked where they would put people out [in the crowd] in little sections and rope them off.
You’ve recorded dozens of albums and hundreds of songs. How does your band keep up live?
When we go on stage, I never have a set list. If somebody hollers for a song in the audience and I recorded it maybe thirty years ago, I think, “Oh, I wonder if I remember that.” Somebody in the band has to kick it off—a fiddle or a banjo or a mandolin—and that kickoff guy, he’ll know it. And then while he’s doing it, I’m thinking, “I wonder what that first verse is” [laughs]. I rewrote a few of them on stage, but for the most part, I’ll know the song. It keeps it interesting for the band because they don’t know what’s coming next.