They teased us at the IBMA Awards in September with a short performance, but the true magic is about to begin – the Masters of Bluegrass will finally be taking the stage this weekend. The band makes its premiere in Bristol, TN, at the Paramount Theater on Friday night the 25th, followed by a show on Saturday the 26th in Bowling Green, KY., at SkyPac. The Ramblin’ Rooks, a new band comprising the reunited Ronnie Bowman, Kenny Smith and Don Rigsby from the Lonesome River Band, will be the opening act.
These true Masters – Bobby Osborne, J.D. Crowe, Del McCoury, Bobby Hicks and Jerry McCoury – possess otherworldly talent and truly unsurpassed experience at creating the best bluegrass ever made, both among themselves and with the founders and fathers of the music we love. Just barely missing each other when they worked with Jimmy Martin in the 1950’s, both Crowe and Osborne eventually grew into their own legends, fueled by their experience with the self-styled “King of Bluegrass.” Meanwhile, Hicks had joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrasss Boys back in 1953, but left in ’59, four years before McCoury joined the band in 1963. Jerry, the younger McCoury brother, spent many years with Del’s Dixie Pals and worked with other players including Red Allen, Don Reno and David Grisman. Then again, Crowe had actually asked Del McCoury to be part of a band he was starting in the late ‘60’s, but that never came to pass, either. Since Del couldn’t join Crowe at the time, J.D. instead hired Red Allen to play guitar for him. It all sounds like the Six Degrees of Masters of Bluegrass!
All of these near-misses and almost-made-it collaborations are finally being realized with the formation of the Masters of Bluegrass. Del McCoury talked about how it came together, starting with an idea from his booking agent, Barron Ruth. With Ruth’s encouragement, the elder McCoury began to think about his “dream team” band, a group of players who really might fit the bill as genuine “masters of bluegrass.” He didn’t have to think about it for very long.
“I kind of chose these guys because I have a lot of respect for Bobby Osborne, he’s such a great singer,” Del said a few days ago in a telephone interview. “And of course Bobby Hicks, he was recording some of the great bluegrass stuff there in the fifties with Bill Monroe. He recorded some of those great instrumentals that Bill did in the middle fifties and also some of the songs like Dark as Night, Blue as The Day.
“One time somebody asked Bill Monroe, and I was standing there listening, they said, ‘Bill, who’s the best fiddle player you ever had?’ This is when I was working for him in ’63 and Bill said, ‘Well, I don’t know about that, but I’ll tell you I think the truest fiddler I ever had, as far as playing true notes, is Bobby Hicks.’ I thought, ‘That’s a pretty good compliment!’ Coming from Bill Monroe, you know?”
Del also remembers the story about how he almost became a part of Crowe’s band, but Providence, or Fate, or Karma or whatever you want to call it, intervened. Crowe had heard a tape of Del’s band at a live show, and called McCoury to ask him to join the band he was putting together in Lexington, Ky.
“J.D. Crowe happened to hear a tape somehow, and he called me and wondered if I’d come out there and play guitar and sing with him,” remembers Del. “I said, ‘Well, let me think about it.’ I didn’t know about moving to Lexington again, moving again. But I thought, ‘You know, I believe I’ll do that.’ Then the very next day, my dad had a real bad heart attack and I knew I couldn’t leave. So I called J.D. up and I said, ‘You know, I can’t come now, just go ahead, I don’t want to hold you up at all, just ahead and get somebody else. You know and maybe it’ll work out later on.’ But, then he got Red Allen to come in and play guitar and sing. Then, of course, the rest is history with J.D.”
McCoury admitted that he’s been a fan of Crowe’s for a long time, and is looking forward to the chance to finally get on stage with the banjo great.
“I always admired him when I was playing [the banjo]! I learned a lot of his licks that he played with Jimmy [Martin], on those records,” notes Del. “I just never did get to play with him, though, and now we’re gonna play some together.”
Fans coming to the shows may expect a mixture of songs from the founding artists that influenced this second generation of players, which will certainly please the hardcore purists in the crowd. But, they will also be playing some of the music they are known for, and in some cases, that may lean a little bit (all right, a very little bit) in the progressive direction. After all, it was Bobby Osborne, along with his brother Sonny as the Osborne Brothers, who first added the Dobro, electric instruments and drums to a bluegrass recording back in the ‘60’s, inciting the wrath of the purists of the time. They were also the first bluegrass artists to ever perform at the White House, in 1973. Meanwhile, Crowe and his band, the New South, turned out several artists who went on to great things both in bluegrass and country, including Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Doyle Lawson and the late Keith Whitley. Certainly, Del McCoury himself has shown one of the broadest minds in bluegrass, adopting a “big umbrella” philosophy that he has manifested with the Del McCoury Band’s work with Steve Earle, Phish and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, among many others. In any case, fans may expect to hear a wide range of the sounds of bluegrass that have sprung through the walls of time to modern audiences, and, if you’re wondering, they will be playing Rocky Top. It’s a plan.
Del chuckles, “The last time we were both on the Grand Ole Opry, Bobby said to me, ‘You know, people are going to come up and they’re gonna wanna hear Rocky Top.’ Because they’ve been playing and singing it for years and years. And I just said, ‘Well, we’ll just learn it! We can do it!’”
Tickets for both shows are still available.