Old Memories and New Music With Del McCoury
Del McCoury has been a major influence on not only bluegrass, but on multiple generations of jambands, country musicians, and various pop icons, too. With Old Memories: The Song of Bill Monroe, the newest member of the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame pays tribute to his greatest influence and one-time bandleader, bluegrass godfather, Bill Monroe. McCoury sang lead vocals and played rhythm guitar for only one year with the legendary musician back in 1963 but that would prove to be a pivotal year for the young musician, and a period of time that left a lasting mark on his life and music.
Jambands.com talked with McCoury in the midst of several key tour dates, including the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Delloween, which featured Keller Williams and the Travelin’ McCourys in Kentucky, and the inaugural Orlando Calling Festival in a year that also saw him collaborating with New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
McCoury is an insightful, inspired, sharp, and humorous man, who at 72, continues to play like a man half his age, while forging ahead towards the future and life beyond the road by getting “his boys” out there, so the McCoury family name continues on—as it should. And to be sure, like Bill Monroe, a man the Hall of Famer admired and respected, the bluegrass world has been shaped in a profound way by Del McCoury, as well.
RR: Tell me about Bill Monroe and his importance to you and your music.
DM: I’ve been listening to Bill Monroe since I first remember. Before T.V., my dad and my brother would listen to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night radio, and Bill Monroe would be on there. We lived on a farm, and when my older brother G.C. got old enough, he got a job working on a factory and he was making money so he’d buy records. This was still 78 rpm records. (laughs) He would buy Bill Monroe records, so that’s how I’d get to listen to stuff over and over that way, instead of just hearing things on the radio.
I became a great fan at a really early age, probably 9 or 10 or something like that back when I first heard Bill Monroe. I was fortunate enough that in the early 60s, I got to work a year for him through Jack Cook. Jack Cook was a guitar player and lead singer that had worked for Bill Monroe for several years. I got a job with Jack because he quit Bill and moved up to Washington D.C. first, and then he moved from D.C. to Baltimore, and he was playing with a guy by the name of Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys, which was a great bluegrass band there in Baltimore. They mostly played clubs in that area there; they were the first bluegrass band to play Carnegie Hall before Bill Monroe, or Flat & Scruggs. Jack was working for Earl, then he quit Earl and got his own band, and when he did, I started playing banjo with him because I was a banjo player way back them.
Bill Monroe was going to play in New York City, and it was in the winter time, and for some reason, he didn’t have a guitar player or a banjo player, so he took me and Jack to New York. Jack knew his material because he had just recently played for him, so he
knew that he took Jack and then he took me with him to play banjo, and that’s how I got to know Bill Monroe. He offered me a job, and that’s how it all came about.
RR: This past September was the 100th anniversary of Bill Monroe’s birth, and you’ve got an album out called Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe, and it is an absolutely wonderful work and fine tribute to the man and musician. Whose idea was the project, and how did you select the songs?
DM: Thank you. Well, you know, it was my idea. I always wanted to do Bill Monroe’s songs. I have recorded one on a record all through the years, I’ve picked one and recorded it on a record, but I always wanted to do his songs because of my voice. I can still sing in the register that he did, you know. (laughs) I thought I better do it now before I get too old, or I can’t do it.
I was talking with my manager about it and I said, “You know what? I’ll just make a quick list of songs that I could do on the record without any rehearsal, probably at all” because they are in my mind so much. I made this big list of songs; course I didn’t stick to that list, completely, because I felt that if I’m going to do this—a lot of people have recorded some of his most popular numbers that he sang all through the years—I’d like to do some that are kind of obscure, that he recorded and some of those songs he never really sang ‘em on stage. Or, he might have sang ‘em when they first came out, but within a year he quit singin’ ‘em. That’s kind of the way it goes when you do a record, and then, you do a new record and you start doing all those songs.
But, you know, when I worked for him, he had some songs that he did every show, and one was “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Press Your Little Footprints in the Snow,” “Uncle Pen,” and “Muleskinner Blues”—he did all those every show, but then, sometimes he’d ask for requests, and people would request songs he’d recorded through the years and, for the most part, he could remember ‘em. Like “Alabama Waltz”—I never heard him sing that; I just heard him on record do that song. I sang “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” with him and there were some songs that when he recorded them, he sang the lead on the verses, and then he’d sing the tenor on the chorus with the lead singer. But, on the road, sometimes he’d just let the lead singer do the verses, that way he didn’t have to sing as much. One of those was “In Despair.” I remember I had to learn that, and we sang that one a lot, so I felt like “well, I’ll put that one on [ Old Memories ]; it’s obscure and nobody does it anymore,” but I’ll bet now (laughs), with this 100 year thing, there will be a lot of stuff comin’ out that people have never heard of from Bill Monroe on other records by other artists. I did get some of the things that he didn’t do that were never overdone.
Ronnie, my son, is involved in a movie about Bill Monroe, and we recorded a lot of songs in that movie, also. Of course, I didn’t any of those on this record, but there was a lot of old songs of Bill Monroe’s in the movie on the soundtrack. Actually, we recorded about 70 some songs of Bill Monroe—not just me; they had a lot of artists come in and do songs like Jim James sang “Down the Highway of Sorrow,” which he sang. [Monroe]
sang that one quite a lot. Myself and Dan Auerbach [of the Black Keys] sang “Can’t You Hear Me Calling?” We got a lot of different artists to come in. Vince Gill sang on it. Peter Rowan came and sang. There’s a lot of songs.
But on [ Old Memories ], the way we did it, I told the boys to do it all in the same keys that Bill Monroe done them, and we’re going to do the same speed—course, I was used to doing it that way. Most of the time, people sing Bill Monroe songs too fast. They think it’s fast, and it’s not really that fast. And you lose a lot. Now, there are some fast numbers. “John Henry” was cookin’, man, and he always did that fast. (laughter) But, you know, some songs lend themselves to that, and there’s some that are pretty if you do ‘em in the same speed that he did ‘em in and in the same key. A lot of them had one fiddle, or two fiddles, or three fiddles. My fiddle player [Jason Carter], he said, “Who will we get to play the other fiddles?” And I said, “We’re going to get you to play the other fiddles”—one, two, and three fiddles. (laughs) He did a great job with those fiddles.