Strolling Past The Streets of Baltimore with Del McCoury
RR: How did you gather the other material for The Streets of Baltimore?
DM: Randy, I’ll tell you, a lot of times I’ll think of a song that I remember from years ago. Now, there’s quite a few new songs that have never been recorded on there. There’s a lot of writers in this town, and they’ll send me demos all through the year. Some of them have been layin’ around for a couple three years that I never did record. But, at the same time, I’ll think of somethin’ from years ago and I think, “Man, I’d like to record that song.” I would just find a key that I could sing it in and a tempo and whatever and, sometimes, I’ll lay it aside, thinking, “No, this won’t work.” But then there is some that I do that I keep my interest in ‘em. (laughs) For the most part, we didn’t do any rehearsin’ for this record. We just go into the studio and I present this song to the boys and they would get their instrumental parts and maybe their vocal parts, or they would work on their instrumental parts and overdub their vocal parts because it’s a completely different thing. My son, Ronnie, is pretty good at arranging instrumental stuff. Of course, they all are, but I think Ronnie takes more interest in arranging those instrumental parts. That’s just the kind of way it would come together.
I know that old song, “Misty,” was a hit and I always like it. It’s so different. Also, the Platters number [“Only You”], I told my grandson one time (he’s in UT college, but he was here at home then, but I think he was on his summer vacation), “Can you download that song for me by the Platters?” So, he did, and I had not heard it in years. (laughs) I thought, “Oh, man, I can’t record this song. That’s not going to suit me,” but what I did was that I remember, “We could do that double time; we could play the instruments faster than the vocal,” and it worked out good. It was really good for the bluegrass instruments. It was one of those songs that had a great melody that’s a little different. (laughs) That’s kind of the way that I come up with all the stuff.
Usually, my son, Ronnie, will have sent me or gave me some of the demos that I have here sometime during the year. What happens is that I will get this little brown envelope in the mail—I’ve got a post office box—and it’ll be a demo, a record demo, from several artists. A bunch of artists will put out several songs on one CD and I’ll listen to them. Most of the time, what I do, is that I’ll just lay them in a box, put them in a box, until it is time to do a record and go through all that and listen to all that stuff. That’s the process. I try to see if there is anything in there that I’d like to record.
It’s funny. I had written a song for this record and completely forgot I had it. I wrote the song about the same time that we were doin’ the record. For some reason, I laid it aside and I never thought of it again. (laughs) I ran across it the other day, and I thought, “Well, when did I write this song?” I do that a lot, though.
RR: You actually wrote one that does show up on the record, “Free Salvation.”
DM: Yeah, it did, the gospel. I wrote that right about the time we recorded the album—just a little bit before.
RR: It’s good you didn’t forget that one as it suits the album well.
DM: Thank you.
RR: The track I keep returning to over and over again is “I Need More Time,” which was written by Verlon Thompson. That’s an example where I find it hard to believe that the band didn’t rehearse much before recording as it is quite moving.
DM: Yeah, that’s funny. For the most part, those guys had never really played that stuff until we got into the studio. Of course, we work them out good in the studio. A lot of times, we used to rehearse all the stuff before we went in, but, then, I tell you, we were so busy at that time—I remember that—because both of us were busy as a lot of times, the band has their own things that they are doing. Of course, I have a lot of things that I do with the band. But, they were just so busy that I decided that I wasn’t going to ask them to rehearse and when it comes time, we’ll just go in the studio and rehearse it right before its cut, right then. (laughs)
“I Need More Time”—I just saw Verlon. What happened is that I played the Grand Ole Opry on a Tuesday night, I think it was, about two weeks ago, and Alan Jackson had a record release party down at the station [for The Bluegrass Album and what he was goin’ to do was he was going to sing all the songs that he had on the record at the station. After the Opry, me and my wife went over there and I saw Verlon. By the way, it’s a good record; Alan said it is something he always wanted to do—a bluegrass record. In fact, that is what he wanted to do first, but he wound up being a country singer.
I gotta tell you this little side story on that. Years ago, he recorded this song called “Mercury Blues” about that car. Well, the first company I recorded a record for was Arhoolie out in Berkeley, California, and I was out there one time right after Alan Jackson recorded that “Mercury Blues” song, and Chris Strachwitz, he’s Swedish and he’s the one that own the label, and anyway, they had a party there for him, and I was playin’ in California, and I said I’d go to his party. He told me that night, “You know, there is some guy named Jackson that recorded a song that I published years ago and, boy, the checks are really comin’ in.” (laughter) He asked, “Do you know this guy Jackson?” I said, “Yeah, he’s a big country star.” It was funny. He knows all the Cajun stuff and all the stuff down in New Orleans, but when it comes to country, he don’t know nothin’ about country.
Anyway, I saw Verlon at this show that Alan had, and he said, “Man, I’m glad you recorded my song. I would never dreamed in a hundred years that you would have recorded that song. That’s why I never demoed it to you.” It got to me some other way; I don’t know how it got to me. He said, “If I was going to send you a song, I would never send you that song.” (laughs) I said, “Well, you know, when I heard that song, it just struck me—now, this is really different.” And I like things that are different. When we were recording that song…I don’t think the demo had two different speeds in it from what I remember.
RR: You created those two different tempos in the song?
DM: I think I did. I told the boys, “Look, I’m going to sing this part real slow here, but in the instrumental break, just pick it up a little bit and play at a comfortable tempo.” We did that a couple of times and the bass player [Alan Bartram] said, “I don’t think this is going to work. We need to play it all the same speed.” I said, “No, man. This is not a hardcore bluegrass song.” He likes it now since he heard how it comes together. And it’s a great song with a great story. Verlon said the reason he wrote that song was that his dad is at that age where he needs more time. He’s pretty feeble now, and he said that is what inspired him to write it. He’s a great songwriter. I’ve recorded quite a few of his songs.
Shawn Camp had a waltz on the demo [“I Wanna Go Where You Go”], and he’s such a great singer, along with being a great writer. I thought, “I need a waltz on this record,” so
that’s why I recorded that one. And I liked the message, too—the guy’s wife, she’s packin’ up to leave him, and he said, “I’ll help you pack, as long as you take me along.”
RR: And I love a variation on that theme with “I’d Love to Do Some Living.”
DM: Oh, yeah. Larry Cordle had a hand in writin’ that song. Yeah, that’s the way it is with a lot of guys, isn’t it? They just (laughs)…they love to party, but they gotta go to work on Monday. There is no two ways about it. (laughter) Life gets in the way.
RR: I would like to finish our conversation with some discussion about your current work on a Woody Guthrie project.
DM: I would love to. Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, got in touch with me and wondered if I would put music to some of her dad’s lyrics. She also got other people to do this, too. She had a lot of songs, man. She said, “If my dad could afford it, he would have loved to had a band like you’ve got.” Of course, we played somewhere for her before; I don’t remember where it was at now. I said, “Yeah, I’d love to do that.” She sent me 19 songs, and I got the music written to 12 of them. We debuted it in New York [June 29 at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts—Venetian Theater]. We did the whole record there of his songs. They videoed the whole show, and then I did my own show of my own songs that same night. These songs—I could look at ‘em and I’d think, “I believe right here is how he would do this.” I should get you a copy of the record. It’s not released yet. It hasn’t even been mastered. I’ve got a CD of all the songs. They are rough mixes. The mixing is all done, but the mastering isn’t done. I don’t know when we’ll release it, but it’ll be soon.
There’s one song on there called “Women’s Hat,” and, you know what, a lot of these songs are written in his own handwriting. That’s the way I got ‘em—in his own handwriting. He spells women’s w-i-m-m-i-n-s. That’s the way it sounds. (laughs) And, you know, he’s actually a country boy. I don’t know how much education he had. The songs I have were written from 1935 to 1949. I look at the songs and I just kind of vision the timing and the tempo that he would put with that song. It was the easiest thing in the world for me to put the music to that stuff. I just couldn’t believe how easy it was. Of course, now, if the truth be known, the melody I put to something might have been completely off of what he would. (laughs) I just thought it would work. There’s some great songs in there—one about gold about some guy that went out to California and struck gold, and, then, this woman he married wound up with all of his gold and the mansion up on the hill and all of that stuff, you know. (laughs) He’s a great writer.
RR: I think your unique ability to select a melody is pretty special, too.
DM: Thank you. I really did enjoy that project. I did 12, and I had seven more to do, but I just ran out of time. Things just got so busy. Well, I’ve got my own festival now. I was talking with my wife and my manager, too, “Well, if I get the band out on the road, these
guys, doing something on their own, in case something happens to me, they’ll have it goin’.” They can just go with it, the band can do that. You never know because I’m 74 now. But, I feel good. (laughs)