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Published: 2011/11/21
by Randy Ray

Old Memories and New Music With Del McCoury

RR: Ronnie was able to do some parts that you used to do with Bill.

DM: Yeah, he did. He sang the lead on “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” with me and, also, “In Despair,” and I think another one in C. Oh, and another thing when I worked for Bill, we would come on the show—and I kind of did [ Old Memories ] like a show in a way—with that little “Watermelon on the Vine,” and just play a little short piece of that, and he’d either just start talkin’ as soon as that stopped, or we’d kick right into another song. At the end of the show, he would say, “Well, now, we record for Decca Records and our most popular songs are on that label,” and then he’d play his little mandolin thing [McCoury scats the melodic line] and sing, “Y’all Come.” [Author’s Note: “Watermelon on the Vine” begins Old Memories, while “Y’all Come” rests at its coda.]

RR: Great bookends to the show and the album.

DM: (laughs) Yeah. It’s like bookends for the album. He always did that. But me working for him, I knew all the little ends and outs that he had and things that he did. It’s funny; I gotta tell you this one, Randy. We used to play “Bean Blossom,” and this lady would always be there. I don’t know if it was an old acquaintance, or what it was, but she wanted to hear a song called “Linda Lou,” which was about West Virginia. Well, he would do that song, but he could never remember the words, and he’d look to me for the words, and I had no idea what it was. (laughter) I think he felt obligated to sing that song to her. She was from West Virginia, you know? But, that was an example of the fact that he recorded so many songs, and he couldn’t remember them all, so once in a while he would try one that he didn’t remember. (laughs) He was a great guy to work for. I got along really well with him, and I should have stayed longer, but I got this guy a job, Billy Baker, a fiddle player, with Bill, and we were young, and we decided we needed to go to California. That’s where we ought to be—California—(laughs) like a lot of young people do, and I only stayed exactly a year from February to February. If I had to do it over, I would have stayed longer [with Monroe], but I got married, too, in the meantime. I quit
Bill, got married, and moved to California all in one week. (laughter) Crazy stuff, man.

RR: And then Ronnie came along shortly thereafter.

DM: Yeah, and it all turned out good. I still have the same wife. It worked great.

RR: It did, didn’t it? Let’s talk about the movement on the record, as opposed to what you just mentioned in your personal life. There are some truck driving songs on Old Memories. You’ve had a bit of a connection with that lifestyle, right?

DM: Yeah, I thought about that. Before I went to work for Bill, I drove a truck. Back then, you didn’t need a CDL [Commercial Driver’s License], or anything to drive a truck. If you got your driver’s license at the age of 16, you could jump right in the biggest rig they made and drive it right out on the highway. Bill bought a bus when I was with him, and I drove it a lot, but, yeah, that hit home with me. I remember hearing [“Lonesome Truck Driver’s Blues”] so long ago. My brother had that record, and I listened to it over and over and over. I had the 78 rpms out, and that was one of them. And, you know, I don’t know if I ever heard him do that on the road, either. I like it—“Lonesome Truck Driver’s Blues.”

RR: You did some runs, or solos, to emulate the feel on the Old Memories.

DM: Oh, yeah. I know the one you are talking about [“Used to Be”]. I had to put picks on because I’m used to using picks, but the guy who recorded it in the beginning, I don’t think he used…well, he might have used picks to play a little short break on that tune “Used to Be,” and I thought Ronnie did a great mandolin solo on that, too. He does his little solo, and then I come in with the guitar and I change into the next chord and take a little short break, and then the fiddles come in, and I always like that. I always liked the way Monroe did that on the sound with those fiddles. But, yeah, I had to do that. I thought, “Well, it’s going to be up to me to do that little guitar break.” I use a flat pick all the time, and I haven’t used picks on my fingers since I quit playing banjo. That’s been a long time ago, but I still know how to use them.

RR: “Train 45 (Heading South)”—Bill Monroe originally recorded that with lyrics, but the piece has mainly been played as an instrumental.

DM: You’re right about that. Most people play it as an instrumental, but that song was recorded by Grayson and Whitter way back in the 20s, I think, but it was written by a guy that my dad went to school with, Steve Ledford, an old time fiddler from North Carolina. He and my dad went to school together, and they were probably kin, but I don’t know. Steve Ledford and Wade Mainer and maybe it was J.E. [Mainer], the three of them wrote that song, and they got credit for it. I didn’t even know that song had lyrics to that song, but I think my oldest brother did know that because Steve Ledford came to our house and stayed for a while one time when I was too young to even realize. He probably sang that song because he played on the fiddle. So, Bill, somehow he knew the words to it, but he recorded that way after I quit him, really. That was probably one of the latest songs that I recorded on [ Old Memories ]—that “Train 45” song with the words.

RR: Another song Bill covered “Alabama Waltz,” was written by Hank Williams.

DM: That’s correct. I have a radio show that’s syndicated, and the guy that scripts the show for us is Jon Weisberger. He told me that Hank actually recorded that song. I didn’t know that. He recorded it when he was still on Liberty Records in Alabama before he ever was in Shreveport, or up here in Nashville, and so I didn’t know that. Hank did record it, and that’s where Bill got it. Hank and Bill wrote “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” together, you know, and I think that Bill recorded these two songs on the same day—“I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” and, also, “Alabama Waltz.” That was at a time when he and Hank Williams were traveling together. Jimmy Martin told me that. He said that Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys and Hank Williams were actually traveling together and doing shows at about that time, which I think was about 1950. That’s going back.

RR: “My Rose of Old Kentucky” is such a sweet song, isn’t it?

DM: Yes, it is. I couldn’t get a handle on it like I wanted to, but that’s the way it is with some songs. (laughs) I always liked that song, and I have sang it before, but for some reason, when I recorded it at that time, I just couldn’t get it like I wanted it. I thought, “Well, we’ll just leave this off the record” because we thought it was going to be too long anyway with all these songs, and yet it wasn’t. So we used it anyway. Yeah, I didn’t think we’d get it on there. We put it on vinyl, too. I thought it may work on a CD, but it ain’t gonna work on vinyl. But it did. It was just long enough for vinyl without going over with what I had. That was everything I recorded. When we went into the studio and recorded, I thought we’d have at least one too many, which is good. I always want at least one or two songs too many. (laughter) But it worked out. We were almost short. (laughs)

RR: What do you feel were the challenges in recording that song?

DM: I don’t know. It was something about…it was just something…it could have been the way I felt that day. I think that’s probably part of it. Some days, I can really nail a song, and the next day it’s a lot harder for me, and I don’t know. It’s the notes, the way they are, and it’s hard to explain—some of those songs that were higher notes than that were a lot easier. It’s crazy. (laughs) Right in that mid-range, that is kind of in my mid-range before I have to break into falsetto, and that’s pretty hard to keep singin’, for me to keep singin’ all the way through the song. But then there’s days when that comes real easy, but that day, I just thought, “Man, why is this song so hard to sing?” (laughter)

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