The Del McCoury Band is playing this weekend at the Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival, and I am really psyched to get to see them again.
Del, whose fans range from Vince Gill to Elvis Costello, is a living legend in the music world. Even as one of the most recent inductees into IBMA’s prestigious Bluegrass Hall of Honor, he is still at the top of his game on stage and in the studio. The Del McCoury Band puts on one of the best shows in all of acoustic music, which is why they are among the most successful bluegrass bands of all time. With multiple Grammy nominations, a Grammy award, and over thirty IBMA awards, they are also bluegrass‘ most awarded- band.
In preparation for their appearance this weekend, I have been enjoying one of my very favorite albums, and one of Del’s best: Del And The Boys.
Released in 2001 on Ricky Skaggs’ Ceili Music label, The Del McCoury Band garnered more from this album than just a catchy nickname and their now-iconic lily. The album peaked at #50 on the Billboard country chart, introduced The Del McCoury Band to the new millennium, and demonstrated that they would remain a force to be reckoned with in bluegrass and acoustic music.
The album also produced what would become their most popular song, and one of the biggest hits in bluegrass since the turn of the century.
Del & The Boys opens with a song written by British folk rocker, Richard Thompson, one that has been so popular that everything from bluegrass band names to works of fiction have received inspiration from this powerful story-song. Often referenced simply as “that bluegrass song about the motorcycle,” 1952 Vincent Black Lightning sends a message that Del & The Boys is the real deal.
As a ten year old boy, I was captivated by the images of “red hair and black leather” racing through my mind while Del sang of James and Molly. I can vividly remember sitting in my dad’s truck pressing the back button as soon as the song ended. I probably listened to it at least ten times before going on to Track 2! And I was definitely not the only one who fell in love with this song nearly a decade ago, for it won the Song of the Year Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2002.
As soon as Rob McCoury’s now famous banjo intro cranks up with “da-da-DA-duhduh-da-da-DAH!” (you know what I’m talking about), you know James’ motorcycle is about to ride one more time. The tragic song recounts the story of said James, who has two loves in his life: red haired women and his classic motorcycle. Del delivers the song with such conviction, you feel as if you’re riding right alongside James for four minutes. The drive of Rob’s banjo pushes the motorcycle throughout this modern bluegrass standard.
Del & The Boys would remain a classic album even if this was the only track on the project.
Like the engine of James’ 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, The Del McCoury Band is a well-tuned machine. At the time this album was recorded, Del (guitar) along with sons Rob (banjo) and Ronnie (mandolin), Jason Carter (fiddle), and Mike Bub (bass) had been playing together for nearly ten years. They had become comfortable playing as a unit, and it really shows in this performance.
Most bluegrass bands can only dream of playing with the synchronization on display here. Instrumentally, the band begins and ends with the signature rhythm of Del’s guitar. Backed by the powerful time in Mike Bub’s bass and Ronnie McCoury’s mandolin, the band keeps time like a metronome: stone cold perfect. Throw in the bluesy flair in Jason Carter’s fiddle and Rob McCoury’s banjo, you have got yourself a legendary bluegrass band. The taste, tone, and timing with which these five musicians play is magical.
Need any proof? Look no further than All Aboard.
All Aboard is a spiritually-minded song which takes place on a train. Just like the song’s protagonist, you can “feel the wheels a-turning” underneath your feet due to the powerful picking of Del and the Boys. This song takes you on a wild ride, and the picking will affect your emotions just as much as the song’s powerful lyric. The locomotive nature to the group’s playing couldn’t be more evident than on this song. It is flawless in execution. All five instrumental voices meld cohesively into bluegrass gold! This is one of those you will need to stop the car for in order to pay attention to everything that is taking place within this song.
Another strong song on Del & The Boys is The King’s Shilling, which sounds as if it could have been brought from across the sea a few centuries ago. Daniel and Tim’s visions of gold and adventure mask the reality of the lives of sailors, which ultimately leads to their demise. Del’s voice is front and center on this tear-jerker of a song. His emotionally-charged, high lonesome voice sounds weathered, which is one reason his delivery seems so real. If Del sounded like a country crooner, as so many lead singers do these days, this track wouldn’t be nearly so powerful.
Speaking of cowboys, hoboes, whistles, heroes, and daddies… Gone But Not Forgotten is another of my favorites.
The wheels of time just keep on moving on. Too many things we’ve loved too soon are gone but not forgotten.
That pair of lines says it all.
This one really calls for some personal reflection. My grandpa, Paul “Moon” Mullins, was a true man of the land. He grew his own corn, to grind his own meal, to make his own cornbread. He churned his own butter and cured his own hams. Moon produced 80% of the food for his family. Mountain men such as him are a dying breed; they are gone, but not forgotten.
We can all reflect on the lives our parents and grandparents lived and see depictions of days gone by. This song reminds us that while those people and ways of life may be gone, they are surely not forgotten. Studying history now in college, I see that our future can be found in our past. By learning from our predecessors, we learn about ourselves. This wonderful song serves to remind us of this simple truth.
Del McCoury is the poster child for applying this lesson to bluegrass music. A former bluegrass boy, McCoury is already a living legend. Look no further than his latest album, Old Memories: The Song of Bill Monroe to realize his heavy influence from our music’s founder in his own style.
He is also one of our music’s biggest innovators. Del’s album preceding Old Memories is a collaboration of The Del McCoury Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Mixing bluegrass with Dixieland jazz? Who would think of such an idea? Del McCoury did, and pulled it off brilliantly!
Having worked with a slate of artists including Steve Earle, Vince Gill, Mac Wiseman, Dierks Bentley, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John Cowan, Doc Watson, Darrell Scott, and Phish, The Del McCoury Band has taken their music across the globe and to audiences who have never heard bluegrass before, and who leave proudly proclaiming themselves as “Del-heads.” His ability to mold the future of bluegrass music while still showing reverence for the past is rare, special and unique. Del McCoury is one of our music’s greatest treasures.
In addition to the songs mentioned above, this seminal album includes other great tunes like Count Me Out, Good Man Like Me, and Learning The Blues, just to single out a few.
Del And The Boys (Ceili Music 2006) can be purchased at delmccouryband.com, and can be purchased digitally from iTunes and Amazon MP3.
Make sure you get a copy Del And The Boys, and ride that 1952 Vincent Black Lightning to bluegrass heaven!