Whoever came up with the idea for Del McCoury and Sam Bush to leave their bands behind and tour briefly as a duo should become an instant candidate for Bluegrass sainthood.
For song after song Sunday night, the dynamic duo blended harmonies and stripped down music – just a mandolin and guitar on all but one song – with humor and stories from the road as they kicked off a short tour at the Birchmere Music Hall in the Washington, DC suburbs.
The 500 or so folks who crowded in to hear the intimate set will be talking about this one for a long time. It was a special night with two special pickers, far from the comfort and familiarity of their five-piece bands, and yet right at home together.
They hadn’t played together before, except for some Nashville jam sessions, but the harmonies and stage banter had the sound of guys who had been doing this for years, rather than squeezing in a couple of quick practices last week.
“We practiced a few times, but really Del was just trying to school me on the fine points of hair care,” Sam said near the top of the show, drawing howls of laughter.
Later, he joked that Del had rolled out of bed on the bus that morning with every hair on his head perfectly in place, and he wondered how he did that. “Well, you know how it is, Sam,” Del retorted. “You just reach over to the nightstand and put it on, along with your teeth.”
The music was every bit as good as the banter, mostly chestnuts such as New River Train, Dark Hollow, Midnight On the Stormy Deep, and It’s a Long, Long Way to the Top of the World. But there were some surprises, too, including a song Del and Sam wrote together called I’m the Bluest Man in Town – not to be confused with Bill Monroe’s The Bluest Man in Town – and a song Del wrote that is so new he had to read the lyrics from a music stand.
There were some hiccups – a fumbled chord here, a crack in the voice there – but that only added to the intimacy of the show. During the second encore, On My Way Back to the Old Home, Del strolled over to the music stand, peered a bit while still strumming, then shrugged and called out, “Anybody remember the last verse?” With the mystery unresolved, he sang the second verse again. Believe me, no one minded.
Most of the night, Sam was edgy and aggressive on his 1938 Gibson F5 mandolin while Del kept the rhythm with his 1956 Martin with a repaired neck – facts that the whole audience learned during an unusual mid-show pause for questions. But there was one interesting exception – an instrumental on which Sam played the fiddle and Del picked a five-string banjo. “I don’t know Sam, these fingers don’t do what they done once,” Del complained as he strapped on the instrument and tried to get comfortable. He delivered an adequate solo and nailed the “Shave and a Haircut” ending, a frown of concentration giving way to a huge grin.
“I’ve dreamed of this since 1966,” Sam said at one point, recalling the first time he heard Del play live at a festival. Both men seemed genuinely pleased to be together – there were more smiles flashed between the men in 90 minutes than you see in a month’s worth of toothpaste commercials – and they hugged and walked off stage arm and arm at the end of their set. Just two guys, playing music for the sheer fun of it.
Photos from Milo Farineau.