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Published: 2011/11/21
by Randy Ray

Old Memories and New Music With Del McCoury

RR: On that note, let’s move out of the studio and go to shows where your performances are also very much based on how you are feeling, and how the band is feeling, and the crowd and all of that. You’ve recently played the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. What are your thoughts on that festival?

DM: That’s really a great festival. Warren Hellman runs that, and it’s free to the public. He’s doing a great service to the people. I think he started it just for the San Francisco residents, so they’d have a place to go, but now, they’re comin’ from all over the world, man, for that. I don’t know what they are going to do with all of those people in the future. It’s really big. Randy, this year, we played it with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. We have had a lot of fun with those guys. One of our shows was at the Austin City Limits, and that’s really fun. Playing with them is really fun. It’s something different in a way, and in another way, it’s still same. All music is related. I love those horns. They really play well.

I don’t know this in the beginning, but Bill Monroe used to listen to jazz. Of course, he listened to Jimmie Rodgers. He recorded a lot of those Blue Yodeler songs. Somebody told me that he’d go down to New Orleans and stay a week and listen to these guys. But, then, too, there was a guy [Arnold Shultz] who came up from New Orleans every summer, out where Bill Monroe lived, and Bill played with him. He’d play guitar, and I think Bill got a lot of his influence from jazz through that guy when he was really young. [Author’s Note: Shultz’s influence cannot be overestimated. As well as being a blues and jazz influence on Monroe as a young, budding musician, Shultz also helped develop the thumb-style of playing guitar, and was a fine fiddler, too.]

You can hear that influence. And I can also hear jazz in some of the classic fiddle players of that century. When Kenny Baker was playing with Bill, Bill introduced him one time as “The Greatest Fiddler in Bluegrass,” so that’s saying a lot. One time, Kenny was playing something, and I said, “Kenny, where did you learn that?” because I worked with Kenny myself, too, and he said, “I learned that from a clarinet player.” (laughter) I said, “Really?” And he said, “Oh, yeah, yeah. I listen to those guys all the time.”

That’s when you find out it’s all related. You see, as a kid growing up, listening to Bill Monroe, I thought, “Man, this is this music,” and Earl Scruggs same thing, he learned a lot of those early banjo tunes he recorded from Dixieland and jazz like “Dear Old Dixie” and “Bugle Call Rag”—all that stuff came from New Orleans or St. Louis, or somewhere, but you don’t realize that as a kid. When I heard Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, I thought, “Man, there’s nobody that plays like this and they just started this up themselves.” See—everybody learns from somebody. And those guys learned a lot of things from other people. (laughs) Yeah, they did.

RR: Interesting. I just spoke with another veteran musician who said that music came from somewhere; one had to have received it from some other source, and it is interesting where musicians get their influences and inspiration.

DM: That’s true. One time Bill Monroe told me, “I learned a lot of things from other people, but they don’t know it.” He said, “I could play it, but you wouldn’t recognize it.” Isn’t that funny?

RR: Perfect. Speaking of influences, I love the variety of collaborations, themed-shows, themed-weekends, and overall different lineups you play with, i.e. Del Yeah Weekend, or Delloween. You also share stages with musicians like Keller Williams, who are modern exponents of all you can do within one’s music, too.

DM: I’ll tell you, Randy, the boys are working with Keller right now. I’ve got the boys out doing their own thing. I decided, well, I’m 72 now, and me and my wife and my manager thought that we better get the boys out because you never know. I’m in good health, but I won’t be always, I’m sure. So we’ve got them out on their own doin’ shows, so [Travelin’ McCourys] do some stuff with Keller, and they rehearse with Keller here in town. They just see what they can do and then hit the road to do those dates with Keller. Keller played my festival, DelFest, up there in Cumberland [Maryland], too.

I think it goes back to this—I wrote a song one time, and Phish recorded it on a live album. After they did that, they wanted me to come out and play their festival with my band out there in New York. It was an abandoned airport [Oswego County Airport in Volney, New York on July 17 and 18, 1999]. I went up there and played the festival, and there was like 70,000 people there. (laughs) I couldn’t believe it. Here’s another thing—they did my song, which really tickled me to death because the royalty checks were really good from that song. (laughs) I got there, and Trey just walked up and talked a little bit, and said, “Now, what can we do together?” I said, “Oh, man. I have no idea.” He said, “Do you know “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome”?” I said, “You know that song?” By then, I thought, “You know, this guy has had to really study this music. That is hardcore bluegrass right there.” Trey wasn’t expectin’ to do something that was easy. I said, “What part do you want me to sing?” And he said, “Why don’t you do Bill Monroe’s part, and I’ll do Jimmy Martin’s part, the lead.” So we did, and we did quite a few. They put us out to one of side of the stage [a second stage, which also featured The Slip and a few other acts], and we played our set, and they backed us up, too [on the second day of the festival during Phish’s first set on July 18, 1999]. They didn’t play real loud, but they backed us up on our songs, which was really great.

After that, a lot of those guys who were in jambands now realized that they came to my shows when they were young and before they got in a band, and when they got their own band, they’d want us to come play the shows with them. That is the way that all got started. We started playing with other bands, and, of course, I got to listen to these guys.

It is like what Sam Bush did years ago. Sam came in just after me. He’s not that much younger than me, but he started doing progressive bluegrass and he was one of the first. It was kind of like that. It’s good for the music to have all these different flavors and different variety. I like variety in everything, and like in a record and in entertainment. I don’t like to hear the same thing over and over.

I’ll give you an example. This is going all the way back to the 50s when I was listening. I grew up in Pennsylvania in the farming country up there, and we had a place called Sunset Park. There was New River Ranch, and a lot of hillbilly or country parks, up in that part of the country, too. There were a lot of bluegrass bands around. Like I said, Earl Taylor was the first bluegrass band to play Carnegie Hall. And that area was a hot bed for bluegrass—Baltimore and Washington, D.C. I think Detroit was the same, and Cincinnati—I was never out there, but back in those days, there was great music in that city. This is all hardcore stuff in those days, but then, John Duffey and the Country Gentlemen came around and came up, and this stuff was a little bit different. It was a little different, which is good for the music. The singing was different, the banjo playing was different—everything was different. By the time that bluegrass festivals came into being, which was in the middle 60s, Sam Bush had started a band and these guys were influenced by bluegrass, but they’re also influenced by some rock guys, too. So you hear that comin’ into the music, and it just kind of branched out.

Those festivals made our music international because I started seeing people comin’ from other countries, which was a surprise to me. They were comin’ from Japan and Europe, you know, all the countries in Europe, so that’s when it went international. Sam was one of the first progressive bluegrass bands, and then these jambands came along, and they had a mixture of electric and acoustic (laughs), and I like it. I do.

RR: Well, I like what you have to say.

DM: Hey, man, I enjoyed it, Randy. Yes, sir. Thanks, man.

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