The true legends of bluegrass music — like those of blues and jazz, and even the first and second generations of rock ’n’ roll — aren’t going to be around forever. So, if you get a chance to see them, don’t pass it up.
Here’s one — the Del McCoury Band will be performing at Wichita’s Orpheum Theatre on July 13.
McCoury, a silver-haired 73-year-old, is just as vigorous and virtuosic on the guitar as he was when he joined Bill Monroe’s band in 1963, and tours as hard as any 20-something rock star. He’s not going anywhere, except perhaps on to the next bluegrass festival.
“Bluegrass festivals kind of started at the same time as my band,” said McCoury, on the phone from his home in Nashville. “I’d travel, and hold down my day job. I couldn’t do that today. In those days, I could lose sleep and keep going.”
Making music for 50-plus years hasn’t been a walk in the park. McCoury has worked in construction, logging and at a nuclear power plant, all while fronting various touring bands. His parents were from North Carolina, but he grew up in York, Pa. — not exactly known as a bluegrass hotbed then, or now.
“I was raised up missionary Baptist, and grew up singing hymns,” he said. “My brother taught me to play the guitar when I was 9, and I heard Earl Scruggs when I was 11, and that was it. We weren’t far from Baltimore, and there was a lot of bluegrass there in clubs. A lot of musicians moved to Baltimore. … Bill Monroe came through Baltimore, going to New York City, and didn’t have a guitar player, so they took me on. I quit playing banjo, started playing guitar and singing lead because he that’s what he needed.”
He’s seen the musical form grow and grow through the years, enough to provide him and his family — his sons Ronnie and Robbie are part of the Del McCoury Band — with a good living in Nashville (though they still own the farmhouse in York).
McCoury’s distinctive “high lonesome” voice and his band’s frenetic torrents of finger-picked notes are associated exclusively with traditional bluegrass — but McCoury has actually been quite open to experimentation and unusual collaboration in recent years. He has toured and performed with everyone from “sacred steel” gospel-funk band the Lee Boys, hardcore troubadour Steve Earle, jam-band giants Phish, and he cut a recent record with Dixieland jazz legends the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which also will perform at the Orpheum on Friday. All the while, he has spread the gospel of bluegrass far and wide.
“Now, there’s more bluegrass bands in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) than in some states here,” McCoury said. “There’s bands in Japan that mimic bands here — (they have) no idea what the meanings of the songs are, but they have it all down. We sell records in that country that you would not believe.”