Del McCoury Band at Berklee

We just received another report from David Hollender, a good friend of Bluegrass Today, and a professor at the prestigious Berklee College Of Music in Boston, MA. He wrote to let us know about a recent performance at the school by The Del McCoury Band, and in particular on the powerful impact they made on both the students and faculty, and at least one member of the Boston media.

Students at Berklee College of Music packed a recital hall for a clinic by The Del McCoury Band on Wednesday, November 9. This is the first time a full bluegrass band has come to give a clinic at the college. Del McCoury, Ronnie McCoury, Rob McCoury, Jason Carter, and Alan Bartram spent over an hour playing, answering questions and talking with the students.
The band played songs from their newest album as well as requests for standards and tunes Del has sung throughout his career. The band obliged a request to play some numbers that student bands were playing this semester so they could watch the band demonstrate the concepts and techniques they have been learning.
Students asked questions about topics ranging from the players” instruments, performing with just one microphone, and how to play backup. Del spoke of his early influences and music that inspired him, as well as how he chooses new material. He spoke about switching from banjo to guitar when Bill Monroe opted to have Bill Keith play banjo. He discussed the importance of strong rhythm guitar playing in a bluegrass band and the relationship between the guitar and bass. He used that opportunity to praise Bartram, the new bass player in the band. Ronnie McCoury responded to questions about how the band records and how he approaches the challenges of producing. When asked to give advice to young players Del advised them to trust their instincts and play the music they love.

There were students in the audience who were already familiar with the band, but for many it was their first exposure to live bluegrass played at this level. The same can be said about some Berklee faculty who happened to be walking by, were drawn in and stayed. They went away sold on the music, and understanding something about its depth and appeal.

A newspaper reporter covering the event was struck by what she saw — an audience of young students who had mostly grown up listening to rock, jazz and pop incredibly excited by what they saw and heard. She wanted to know how this 66-year-old singer, playing music that was probably foreign to most of them could have such an immediate and palpable impact on young students. What came across in peoples’ comments was that the virtuosic playing and singing was one factor, but even more so, it was the depth of feeling that the band put into the music, combined with Del’s charismatic stage presence. People commented about what they perceived as a kind of quiet confidence and self-acceptance that Del exudes about who he is and what he does, and that draws the audience to the music. Listeners who may not have responded the same way to hearing a recording were immediately struck by the skill and depth of what they heard.

In organizing this event I couldn”t help but notice that every person I spoke with who had ever met Del McCoury commented first about his warmth and generosity of spirit. When I approached Del backstage at the Grand Ole Opry last March to ask if he might be willing to come to Berklee when he was in the area there was no hesitation in saying yes. When the chance came, it wouldn”t be enough to just say he was willing. He played an active part by freeing up time to come to spend time with the students. Every member of the band was enthusiastic and showed genuine interest in every student who came up to meet them after the clinic.

A side note: The Del McCoury Band was in the area to play a show at Club Passim, the former Club 47, an historic non-profit club that seats just 125 in a 30′ x 40′ basement in Harvard Square. Club 47 was where a 17-year-old Joan Baez played and introduced Bob Dylan, who played between acts. Opening for them was Abigail Washburn.

In a previous post, we described the recent changes at Berklee to create the Acoustic String Principal (ASP) to allow for serious students of banjo or mandolin to attend the school and pursue a Berklee education, using their chosen instrument as the vehicle for their study. Berklee requires all students to declare a principal instrument, even if they go into Music Business, Film Scoring or Music Technology as their major, and David Hollender (and Strings chair Matt Glaser) have been advocating this ASP for several years.

These photos (below) of Del & The Boys at Berklee were taken by Nick Balkin.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.