Two masterful musicians from different genres have come together for a new CD despite the fact that one of them passed away nearly a half century ago. The legendary Del McCoury releases a collaborative work with the late Woody Guthrie titled Del and Woody this Friday, April 15.
McCoury didn’t set out to do the project. It just kind of fell into his lap when he was performing in a memorial concert for Woody a few years ago in Tulsa, OK. The folk icon’s daughter, Nora, was captivated by the Del McCoury Band.
“She told me if my dad could have afforded a band, he would have loved to have had a band like yours,” McCoury told Bluegrass Today. “That’s a great compliment.”
Nora discovered a hidden treasure when she found notebooks of her father’s handwritten songs. During his lifetime the singer-songwriter penned many memorable songs including perhaps his most famous, This Land is Your Land.
His typical, crafted-to-perfection lyrics were on the written page, but they were missing the music. Nora asked Del if he would do the family the honor of finishing the songs.
“I said, ‘Well, yeah, but I kind of hate to mess with Woody,” McCoury says with a chuckle. “I realized that he was a really great songwriter years ago. I said, I’d love to try it. I thought maybe she’d send me a couple of songs. She sent me 26 songs!”
McCoury admits that he was only “vaguely familiar” with the body of Guthrie’s prolific songwriting, but he quickly became schooled.
“Years ago when I was young, I would hear songs on the radio that I didn’t realize then—and I really didn’t realize until not long ago—that he had written,” says McCoury. “Of course, I knew he wrote This Land is Your Land, and of course, everybody in the world has recorded that song.”
The songs that McCoury received from the Guthrie archives were from 1935-1949, and as he studied the lyrics, his appreciation for the American songwriting giant grew even more.
“He had a way with words,” McCoury says. “It seemed like it was effortless for him to write.”
“When I write a song, I get a verse and chorus, and that’s fairly easy. From there it was so hard to keep going. Usually, you want to get three verses at least. It was hard for me to do. It seems, to me, like it was easy for him to write a song because he wrote all the time, and I guess that’s the reason.”
Unlike Guthrie, McCoury confesses that he doesn’t have a passion for writing songs.
“I think there’s a difference in a real songwriter and a guy who writes because he has to,” McCoury explains. “I used to write because I was recording a record. After I got that record done, I would forget about writing until the next record came about, and of course, then I would use a lot of other people’s songs too. Now, I’ve really gotten lazy about writing songs. There’s so many guys here in Nashville that get songs to me when I’m getting ready to record that I just don’t write.”
When faced with the daunting task of bringing the remaining touches of craftsmanship to the precious Guthrie relics, McCoury found out it was easier than he expected.
“Half of my work was done,” he says. “All I had to do was put a melody to the songs. I tried to kind of think like he would about this at the same time. It was relatively easy to do to put melodies to these songs and keep it a variety, different tempos and keys so it doesn’t get monotonous. I really enjoyed the process.”
McCoury’s finished feat brings to life 12 tunes including, Ain’t A Gonna Do, Left in This World Alone, Because You Took Me In Out of the Rain, Family Reunions, Californy Gold, The Government Road, Hoecake Fritters, Dirty Overhalls, and Little Fellow.
Despite the fact that Del never crossed paths with the folk hero, he was able to know the musician somewhat through the analysis of the musician’s songs. For example, McCoury developed an appreciation for Guthrie’s humorous side with the tune, Cheap Mike.
“The guy’s name must have been Mike, and he worked on his car,” McCoury said. “He couldn’t guarantee he was going to do a good job, but he’d tell his friends, ‘Now, if you get in trouble with your car, take it down there to Cheap Mike, he’ll fix it.’
McCoury also experienced the world through the prolific songwriter’s music after he journeyed to New York.
“There’s a song I have on the record that’s called Wimmen’s Hats. He saw these ladies walking up and down the street in New York City, and they had these fashionable hats that they were wearing. He describes all these hats, and it’s funny. Some of them look like mousetraps over their ears. Some looked like they have fishing net dragging behind them,” McCoury adds, laughing.
“He had one called The New York Trains. When he first got to New York City, he wrote about all these trains. Not only did they run on top of the ground, they ran under the ground! I don’t think he had ever seen that before,” adds McCoury with a chuckle.
The Del McCoury Band is touring in support of the CD. McCoury is enjoying introducing audiences to Guthrie’s music.
In addition to his work on the Woody project, McCoury is hitting the road for two-man shows with another music great, David Grisman.
“It’s just the two of us [with a] guitar and a mandolin, two dummies up there on stage,” the self-deprecating McCoury kids. “It is fun. We do some old songs that people may have never heard before, like pre-bluegrass.”
The two musicians’ history goes back a long way. McCoury and his brother, Jerry, first performed with Grisman 50 years ago in Troy, New York. That’s just one of the many intriguing chapters in McCoury’s successful career that’s certainly worthy of a book retelling the history of one of bluegrass music’s most respected performers. In fact, others have the same idea, but helping write a tome on his life isn’t exactly his favorite duty on the to-do list.
“I know I’ve been dragging my feet,” McCoury admits. “I said, no, I don’t want to get into that. I guess they’re going to do it sooner or later,” he adds. He (Jon Weisberger, co-host of SiriusXM’s The Blue Side of Town with Del McCoury ) and my wife have been trying to talk me into this, so they probably will,” he says with a hearty laugh.
McCoury again will host the multi-genre music festival DelFest May 26-29 in Cumberland, MD, and he continues his travels with his own award-winning band.
“I enjoy that a lot better than writing a book,” he says, laughing. “I really do. I like to go. I never get tired of it.”
“A lot of people get fed up with the travel,” he adds, mentioning recent flight delays due to weather conditions. “I don’t get disappointed with it. It just comes with the travel.”
“I’m trying to slow down,” the 77-year-old entertainer says, “but I’m busier than I ever have been.”