Del discusses his fallen comrades

Milo Farineau caught up with Del McCoury recently, and took the opportunity to get his reflections on some fellow bluegrass legends who have passed on this past few months.

Milo:  It’s been a tough year of loss for the bluegrass world. The passing of Earl Scruggs, Doug Dillard and Doc Watson were a big loss to those of us who only knew them only through their music, but these were your friends. You played at Earl’s funeral and it was during Delfest this year that we we learned of Doc’s fall. That’s a lot to take in one year.

Del:  Sam Bush was just up here and we were talking about all that loss… Doc, Doug and Earl. It was good talking about them. Remembering, telling stories while they weren’t there to defend themselves (laughs).

It’s a really big loss, you know. Really big. All of them. Earl Scruggs was the reason I started playing music in the beginning. My older brother G.C. went and bought that record, Rollin’ in my Sweet Baby’s Arms, and that was 78 RPM records back then (laughs). I was 11 years old when I heard that song the first time. My brother had taught me a little guitar back then, some chords, but when I heard Earl play that banjo, that backup on that song, I said “Boy I got to do that!” I eventually got one to play. It took me forever, but I kinda learned to play it. So that was really my interest back then. The banjo. It really was.

I got to really know Earl in his later years and we became great friends. He could remember a lot of things that happened over the years and he really liked talking about them to me. He could remember a lot of things!

I didn’t meet Doc ’till I was playing with Bill Monroe in 1963. I was on rhythm guitar and Bill was booked for a couple of weeks out there at The Ash Grove, in California. Ed Pearl‘s place. Bill’s manager came up and said “I’m gonna have Doc Watson come up here and open the show for you, Bill,” so Doc shows up, and he didn’t have any band with him or anything. So he was wondering if I’d come play guitar with him, you know, just pull up a chair and play some rhythm. And I said “Well I don’t know if I know enough…” and he just cut me off and said “Come on you’ll get it. Don’t worry ’bout it.”

So that’s what I did. I literally started playing with Doc the minute I met him (laughs). That was really a big treat for me. Doc was such a great guitar player and singer, a true entertainer who really had a way with the audience that was truly great. Years later I got to record with him, with Mac Wiseman. We did a record with him. We really didn’t rehearse or anything. Someone would just say, ”Hey, let’s do this song,” and well, we‘d do it. Then someone else would name another song, and we’d just play it and record it. That’s pretty much how that whole album with Doc came about. It was great. A really good time.

And Doug Dillard… I met him when I was playing with Bill too. Bill and Betsy were staying at that Holiday Hotel, when we were out playing at that Ash Grove. Bill says “You and Kenny gonna stay up there with the Dillards,” and I’d heard of some Dillards that had this great song Banjo in the Hollow, and I thought ‘That must be a different bunch of guys we’re staying with,” but it was them. They told me they were out there in California and had just done some filming with Andy Griffith, for the show, and they were grateful to have gotten some work because they hadn’t really gotten much going on, and it was right after that, after I met them that ‘bam,’ it really took off for them.


Milo: I talked to Sam Bush at FloydFest about the loss and he said “Del is the King of bluegrass” and he was speaking about you being one of the last great elders and statesmen of the bluegrass tradition. That said, do you feel any pressure, any need or obligation to protect traditional bluegrass?

Del: Well, yes I do kinda feel that way but I’ve never really said anything about it you know. When I started and got my first band after I quit Bill Monroe, I still wanted that sound, that makeup of a band, those instruments that I first heard together. It impressed me so much when I first hear that stuff, it really did. Flatt and Scrugs and Bill Monroe… I heard them first together when I was younger, and not really paying much attention to it.

Then I heard Flatt and Scruggs together, and Bill Monroe by himself. I used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry with my dad and granddad. When I got to be able to drive I’d run around to all these hillbilly parks, so many not more than an hour or two away from each other, and hear them play. All of them… Flatt and Scruggs, and Bill Monroe, the Stanleys and the Osbornes.

It seemed that in those days that each one of them had a distinctive sound. More so than today I think. I like playing that traditional bluegrass sometimes. It’s important. But I like all these new young guys too. I like playing it all. My manager is always coming up with interesting ideas of who to play with, and I really love it too. Mixing it up.


Milo: Speaking of playing with a great mix, you’re headlining Jomeokee Music Festival in Pinnacle, NC September 14-16.

Del: I’m excited about this one. You know the lineup, the people, it’s kinda like a little Delfest. I love that spot too… that view of Pilot Mountain. Lots of good music has been played there. I’m really looking forward to that!