Del McCoury – a 60 year career overview

On February 1, (2019) Del McCoury enjoyed his 80th birthday celebrations. Tonight, he has the Opry House, Nashville, all to himself, albeit symbolically, to mark the occasion. 

McCoury will be joined on stage for the what is described as “Grand Del Opry” by members of his award-winning Del McCoury Band plus friends and fellow award-winners Sam Bush, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Dierks Bentley, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Travelin’ McCourys, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn, and, fitness permitting, Jesse McReynolds. 

Following his ‘birthday card’ earlier this month, we now have a look at his 60 plus-year career in bluegrass music. 

Delano Floyd ‘Del’ McCoury’s illustrious life began in Bakersville, North Carolina, a small mountain community half way between Asheville, North Carolina, and Johnson City, Tennessee. 

He was born into a musical family; his mother sang and played the organ, piano, and harmonica, and he had several uncles and cousins who played old-time music. However, it was his older brother, Grover ‘G.C.’, whom Del has to thank for getting him interested in bluegrass music – listening, as he did, to the likes of Bill Monroe, and Flatt & Scruggs on the Grand Ole Opry – and teaching him how to play the guitar, the instrument that he started playing at the age of nine. 

As has been the case with so many, the majestic sound of Earl Scruggs’ banjo led to McCoury switching to that instrument. Using an old Vega banjo that his father had reportedly ‘borrowed,’ McCoury taught himself how to play by listening to Scruggs, Don Reno, Allen Shelton, and Ralph Stanley on the radio, and by studying their records. 

As he graduated from high school, he bought himself a new Gibson banjo and then acquired a Gibson that Baltimore banjo great Walter Hensley once played. In the spring of that same year – 1957 – McCoury heard a local group, the Stevens Brothers, on Radio WCBG in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. McCoury befriended the fiddle player with the band, Keith Daniels, and the duo along with the two brothers played together often during the ensuing months. 

In turn, Keith persuaded McCoury to leave the Stevens Brothers and Daniels started his own band, the Blue Ridge Ramblers, booking a considerable number of dates, including shows at fairs, music parks, dances, and clubs at venues in southern Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. Among those were appearances on the New Dominion Barn Dance in Richmond, Virginia, and on WLBR TV shows in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. 

In late spring/early summer of 1960, McCoury enjoyed his first recording experience, cutting about eight sides (according to Russ Hooper, who played Dobro® at the session); a single featuring Live and Let Live and I’ve Been Working on the Railroad was released by Rebel Records in December 1964. 

McCoury was drafted into the Army in 1962 but after a few months he was discharged on medical grounds. 

By that time the Blue Ridge Ramblers had been disbanded. Determined to make a living playing bluegrass music, McCoury frequented the Baltimore bluegrass clubs. Not able to get work playing the banjo, he switched to playing guitar which enabled him to get a position as lead singer with Melvin Howell & the Franklin County Boys. 

After a couple of months McCoury, playing banjo and singing lead, joined the Baltimore-based band Jack Cooke & the Virginia Playboys. Del’s brother Jerry – just 14 years old at the time – also got a job with the Playboys, playing bass. 

One evening in January 1963 they were playing at the Chapel Café in Baltimore, when Bill Monroe walked in. Monroe was en-route to do a show in New York City and in need of a guitarist and a banjo player. Thus, he hired Cooke and McCoury, who impressed Bill enough to prompt Monroe to invite him to Nashville to join the Blue Grass Boys. 

In a very well-known story, by the time McCoury actually took up Monroe’s invitation the latter had recruited chromatic banjo ace Bill ‘Brad’ Keith to play that instrument in the band. Thankfully, McCoury’s trip was not fruitless as Monroe hired him to play guitar and sing lead. 

He stayed with Monroe for a year (February 1963 to February 1964) making numerous appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and helping to record three songs for Decca Records; McCoury sang lead on the chorus of Legend of The Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Very shortly afterwards the newly-wed McCoury was encouraged by friend and fiddle player Billy Baker to move to California, where the duo joined the Golden State Boys. However, due to a paucity of work, that arrangement only lasted for about a couple of months. Thereafter the duo started their own band, the Shady Valley Boys. Although they were able to get a reasonable amount of work (enough to enable McCoury to acquire his first guitar; a 1956 Martin D28), including a regular Sunday TV show, McCoury became disenchanted with life in California, and in July 1964 he moved back to York County, Pennsylvania, where he began doing logging work for his wife’s uncle. 

As Del and Jean McCoury had three young children and he needed the security of a regular-paying job, this non-musical labor continued all through the 1970s and into the 1980s. 

Nevertheless, McCoury was able to continue playing bluegrass music. The location – Glen Rock, Pennsylvania – allowed him to take weekend jobs in Baltimore and Washington, DC, as well as to journey west to do shows. 

In December 1967, then the leader of the newly-named Dixie Pals, McCoury recorded 14 tracks for an album, Del McCoury Sings Bluegrass, released on the Arhoolie label in July 1968. 

From the outset, McCoury was able to take advantage of a rich pool of musicians with similar tastes in bluegrass music, almost all located within a 50-mile radius of his home. 

In the early days Del McCoury and the Dixie Pals worked in some self-confessed “pretty rough places;” bars and bluegrass music clubs in Baltimore such as the Stonewall Inn, the Carleton Motel, and Zebalon’s Lounge, and at the Turf Club in Laurel, Maryland. Occasionally, they would play at Sunset Park and Valley View Park also. Sometimes they would travel further afield to do shows in New Jersey or in Salisbury, Maryland. 

Aided by the patronage of founder of the multi-day bluegrass festival Carlton Haney, McCoury got some bookings at festivals promoted by Haney, such as Berryville, Virginia and Camp Springs, North Carolina, with the knock-on effect that other festival promoters also started hiring the band. 

As the name Del McCoury & the Dixie Pals became more widely known, the band was invited to appear at universities and colleges in the east and mid-west during the winter months, and to play at bluegrass festivals in those same areas during the spring and summer periods. 

During 1978 McCoury did a three-week tour of Canada, and then in November/December of the following year he flew out to Japan for an eight-day trip. The December 2nd concert at Ibaragi, Japan, was recorded and released in Japan in September 1981.

During the early 1970s, he recorded LPs for Grassound, Rounder, Rebel (2), Revonah, and Leather Records. A highlight of this era was McCoury’s 1973 album for Rounder, High on a Mountain. The album’s title track, written by Ola Belle Reed, remains a big favorite to this day.

Other albums from this period include the two for Rebel; 1975’s Del McCoury: Rain and Snow and the 1978 release Our Kind of Grass. Outstanding songs from these LPs include Cabin on a Mountain, Rain and Snow, and Rain Please Go Away. 

The Del McCoury Band performs Cold Rain and Snow for an appreciative audience at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, 2009 …….

During the first half of the 1980s, Del recorded an album for the short-lived Leather Records; Take Me to the Mountains, re-issued by Rebel Records. The follow-up, Sawmill, was another with the Rebel label.

Dixie Pals during the period 1967 to 1983 have included; playing banjo – Larry Smith, Don Eldreth, John Farmer, Bill Runkle, Walter Hensley, Dick Smith, and Paul Silvius; on bass – Gerald ‘Jerry’ McCoury, Dewey Renfro and Danny Renfro; on fiddle – Bobby Diamond, Billy Baker, Bill Sage, Bill Poffinberger, Sonny Miller, Steve Thomas, and Jon Glik; and on mandolin – Dick Laird, Dick Staber, Don Eldreth, Herschel Sizemore, and Ronnie McCoury, beginning in May 1981. 

In 1987 Robbie McCoury became a member of the Dixie Pals, having initially playing bass as a stand-in June 1986. His first show as a banjo player was in the spring of 1987. 

Also in 1987, Del McCoury began a nearly ten-year relationship with Rounder Records with a fine harmony duet project; The McCoury Brothers (Del and Jerry McCoury).

In 1989 Del McCoury & the Dixie Pals became The Del McCoury Band, and were, briefly, managed by Lance LeRoy’s Lancer Agency, who helped the band up to the next level.

Along with Del, Ronnie and Robbie McCoury, Jason Carter (fiddle) and Mike Bub (bass) completed the first line-up of The Del McCoury Band. 

In 1989 Del McCoury was inducted into the SPBGMA Preservation Hall of Greats. 

Three years later Del, Ronnie, and Robbie and their families moved to live in the Nashville area. 

The McCourys’ profile was raised even further by three excellent releases by Rounder; Don’t Stop the Music, Blue Side of Town and A Deeper Shade of Blue. These brought even more attention to McCoury and his music, and a host of top awards followed.

During 1999 and 2001, McCoury cut two albums, The Family and Del and the Boys, for Ricky Skaggs’ Ceili label. 

In 2003 he was made a cast member of the legendary Grand Ole Opry. That same year he formed McCoury Music, and since then all of his recordings have appeared on that label, including It’s Just the Night, The Company We Keep; The Promised Land (his first all-Gospel recording); By Request; Celebrating 50 Years of Del McCoury – a five-CD boxed set with new recordings of McCoury’s most popular songs, Family Circle; American Legacies – recorded with the Preservation Jazz Hall Band. 

During the past 10 years McCoury has been similarly prolific in the recording studio with Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe, The Streets of Baltimore (recalling his bluegrass music apprenticeship in the Baltimore honky-tonks in the late 1950s), Snapshot – Del At 75, Del And Woody (for which McCoury adds music, for possibly the first time, to some of Guthrie’s handwritten lyrics), and Still Sings Bluegrass (released in 2018).

One cut, Bluest Man in Town, from a recording session with Bill Monroe during June 1985 was released on Monroe’s Bluegrass ’87 LP. The other, I‘m Going Back To Old Kentucky, is a track on the CD Bill Monroe And Stars Of The Bluegrass Hall Of Fame. 

In 1990 Del McCoury teamed up with Don and David Parmley, recording 13 songs for an album aptly titled, Families of Tradition. 

Shortly after the passing, in September 1996, of the Father of Bluegrass Music, McCoury recorded two songs, John Henry and True Life Blues, for a tribute album The Legend Lives On: A Tribute To Bill Monroe released by Audium Records.

In another side venture Del McCoury, with veterans Mac Wiseman and Doc Watson, cut tracks for the Sugar Hill Records CD Del, Doc and Mac (released in October 1998).  

A collaboration with Americana music singer/song-writer Steve Earle, realized a CD, The Mountain, and, with touring across the USA and abroad in support for the album, it introduced McCoury to audiences who wouldn’t normally see/hear a bluegrass band. The album was nominated for an IBMA award in the Recorded Event of the Year category (1999), and for a Grammy Award in the Best Bluegrass Album category (2000).

Having made appearances at jazz music events, most notably the JazzFests, in July 2010 McCoury recorded with New Orleans’ own Preservation Hall Jazz Band. 

In 2005 Alan Bartram replaced Bub as the bass player in the Del McCoury Band, thus providing the final piece of the current line-up.

Three years later McCoury started DelFest, an annual bluegrass festival held at the Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland. The Del McCoury Band plays every night at each of these festivals. 

McCoury has made multiple appearances at the spectacular Bonnaroo Music Festival (with attendance of 70,000); at MerleFest (with attendance peaking at a record high of 83,000 in 2017); the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (2011, the free festival drew an estimated 750,000 people over the course of the three-days); The Telluride Bluegrass Festival; High Sierra Music Festival (now at Quincy, California); another multi-genre event, the Old Settlers Music Festival, near Lockhart, Texas; California’s Strawberry Music Festival; and the Newport Folk Festival. 

His television appearances include The Marty Stuart Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and the Late Show with David Letterman. McCoury is featured in documentaries Gather at the River – A Bluegrass Celebration, Bill Monroe: Father of Bluegrass Music, Revival: The Sam Bush Story and The Porchlight Sessions. 

McCoury has earned a considerable number of awards, including a staggering 31 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Awards, including the Entertainer of the Year accolade four consecutive times (taking this award an amazing nine times in total). He has won the IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year title four times (in 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1996); the Instrumental Group of the Year award twice (1996 and 1997); Album of the Year in his own right twice – A Deeper Shade of Blue (1994) and It’s Just the Night (2004), and for his part in the recording of True Life Blues – The Songs of Bill Monroe (Recorded Event of the Year, 1997); and Song of the Year – with 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, written by Richard J. Thompson (no relation) (in 2002). 

In 2004 the Del McCoury Band’s CD It’s Just the Night was nominated for the Best Bluegrass Album Grammy Award and in the following year he won his first Grammy Award, in the same category, for The Company We Keep. In 2014 McCoury won his second Grammy Award for The Streets of Baltimore. 

In June 2010 he received a National Heritage Fellowship lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts in the field of folk and traditional arts, including a stipend of $25,000, and in 2011 he was elected into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.

Later, in 2015, McCoury received the Bluegrass Star Award, presented by the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation, the award being bestowed upon bluegrass artists who do an exemplary job of advancing traditional bluegrass music and bringing it to new audiences while preserving its character and heritage. That sums up Del McCoury to a “T”!

While not a prolific song-writer McCoury has written a few songs that fit perfectly into his bluesy bent. These include Beauty of My Dreams, Blue Piece of Paper, I Feel the Blues Movin’ In, Rain Please Go Away, Take Me in Chains, and You’ve Got the Look of a Perfect Diamond. 

The Del McCoury Band performs I Feel the Blues Movin’ In live in the Washington, D.C. studios of WAMU’s Bluegrass Country, 2016 …. 

A powerful singer in the traditional bluegrass mode; he is a progressive; open-minded – as Tim Newby has commented, he has “shared the stage with Phish, jammed with Leftover Salmon, and recorded an album with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.” Also, he has performed with The String Cheese Incident, Donna the Buffalo, Old Crow Medicine Show, and David Grisman – and receptive, leading to him recording some of the most unlikely songs.   

McCoury learned to play guitar in the old-school way, guided by Bill Monroe, “I learned to play hard rhythm,” he told Acoustic Guitar magazine’s Blair Jackson in November 2017. For the ultimate G-run McCoury adds an F note to give it a more bluesy feel. 

This story would not be complete without mentioning (again) Del’s wife Jean, described by Chris Stuart as a “sparkling detail-oriented dynamo,” I say, “just as delightful a personality as Del;” she takes care of much of the business, looking after the finances, traveling with the band, looking after CD and merchandise sales. As Del says, “I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

A Discography

Del McCoury – 

  • Del McCoury Sings Bluegrass (Arhoolie F 5006, released in 07-68 (re-issued in 1992 as I Wonder Where You Are Tonight, with two previously unissued tracks; CD-9030).
  • Don’t Stop the Music (Rounder 0245, 15-08-1990)
  • A Deeper Shade of Blue (Rounder CD-0303, 01-10-1993)
  • High Lonesome and Blue (Rounder 11661-11613, 20-04-2004) 

Del McCoury & the Dixie Pals – 

  • High on A Mountain (Rounder 0019, 02-73 (reissued on CD in 1995)) 
  • Del McCoury And the Dixie Pals (Revonah R-916, 1975) 
  • Del McCoury: Rain and Snow (Rebel SLP-1542, 1975) 
  • Collector‘s Special – Lonesome Hobo (Grassound GSD-102, 1976 (re-issued on Rebel REB-CD-1709 in 1994 with bonus song Rain or Snow)
  • Our Kind of Grass (Rebel SLP-1569, 1978)
  • Take Me to The Mountains (Leather LBG-8107, 1981 (re-issued on Rebel REB-1622 in 1983)
  • Strictly Bluegrass Live (Trio [JAP] AW-2054, 09-1981 (US issue on Copper Creek CCCD-0118, Live in Japan, 1980)
  • The Best Of Del McCoury (Rebel REB-1610, 1983)
  • Sawmill (Rebel REB-1636, 1985)
  • Classic Bluegrass (Rebel REB-CD-1111, 26-04-1991) 

The Del McCoury Band – 

  • Blue Side of Town (Rounder CD-0292, 02-1992)
  • Cold Hard Facts (Rounder CD-0363, 17-09-1996)
  • The Family (Ceili Music 2001, 09-02-1999)
  • Del And the Boys (Ceili Music 2006, 27-07-2001)
  • My Dixie Home (Rebel REB-CD-7503, 27-07-2001 
  • It’s Just the Night (McCoury Music MCM-0001, 12-08-2003)
  • The Company We Keep (McCoury Music MCM-0002, 12-07-2005)
  • The Promised Land (McCoury Music MCM-0003, 13-06-2006)
  • Moneyland (with Bernard “Slim” Smith; Marty Stuart; Merle Haggard; Mac Wiseman; Chris Knight; Patty Loveless; Emmylou Harris; Rodney Crowell; Dan Tyminski; Bruce Hornsby and The Fairfield Four; and Mac Wiseman and Tim O’Brien) (McCoury Music MCM-0005, 08-07-2008)
  • The Best Of Del McCoury – The Groovegrass Years (with the Groovegrass Boyz and Bootsy Collins; and Doc Watson and Mac Wiseman) Condon 720015, 10-2008) 
  • By Request (McCoury Music MCM-0012, 05-2009)
  • Celebrating 50 Years Of Del McCoury (McCoury Music MCM-0050 – 05-2009 (5 CD box) [also with bonus CD Bluegrass Gospel Hits]) 
  • Live, Jazz Fest 2008 (Munck Mix 47447, 07-2009) 
  • Family Circle (McCoury Music MCM-0014, 27-10-2009)
  • Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe (McCoury Music MCM-0016, 24-10-2011)
  • The Streets of Baltimore (McCoury Music MCM-0017, 17-09-2013)
  • Snapshot – Del At 75 (McCoury Music MCM 0164, 23-06-2014)
  • Del And Woody (McCoury Music CM 0019, 15-04-2016) 
  • Still Sings Bluegrass (McCoury Music MCM 0020, 25-05-2018)

Del and Jerry McCoury – 

  • McCoury Brothers (Rounder 0230, 1987)

Del McCoury with Don and David Parmley –

  • Families of Tradition (BGC BGC-CD-1003, 1990)

Del McCoury, Mac Wiseman and Doc Watson –

  • Del, Doc and Mac (Sugar Hill SHCD-3888, 10-1998) 

Del McCoury with Steve Earle –

  • The Mountain (E-Squared 1064-2, 23-02-1999)

Del McCoury with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band –

  • American Legacies: Band’s in Town (McCoury Music MCM-0015, 12-04-2011)

Del McCoury with David Grisman – 

  • Hardcore Bluegrass in The Dawg House (Acoustic Disc ACD-50029-CD, 2012) 
  • Del and Dawg Live!: Feast Here Tonight (Acoustic Disc ACD 50051, 26-02-2016 (double))

Del McCoury was a guest on these two albums … 

  • RC Harris and Blue Denim – Grass Won’t Grow on A Busy Street (Grassound GR-116, 1978)
  • Audie Blaylock and Redline – I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky: A Bill Monroe Celebration (Rural Rhythm, 2011)

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.