Del McCoury is in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, he’s a member of the Grand Ole Opry, a Grammy winner, and holds multiple IBMA awards, too many to list. Today is his 78th birthday. Even with all he’s accomplished, it seems as if he’s just now hitting his stride. I spoke with Del in 2008 and asked him to tell me about the time he spent as a member of Bill Monroe’s band.
DM: Now I’ll tell you about Bill Monroe. You never get to know Bill Monroe. And that’s the way he wanted it. I found that out. He’s the type of guy that you never knew if he was serious or just kidding because his expressions never changed either way. or a kid, my age at the time, it’s hard. I could probably understand him better today but it’s hard to figure out personalities when you’re young. He was 52 then and still at the top of his game. Man, he could play that Rawhide, just a flying. And singing. He was still singing great, too. You know, I was in awe of him.
You know he never did tell me how to sing; he never told me how to play. He would tell fiddle players when they were doing the wrong notes. But he never would say, “now you play this note.” If they played a wrong note he would say “That don’t go in there.” That’s all he would say. (chuckle) That was funny, you know because then the fiddle player would think “I wonder what does go in there?” ‘Cause he wouldn’t tell them what went in there. (chuckle)
KD: Can you point to one really big thing that you learned from him?
DM: You know unconsciously I learned a lot of things….
KD: How old were you when you played with him?
DM: I was 24.
KD: Oh my. You were young.
DM: Yes. I was 24 and I learned a lot about doing a show. I learned a lot about singing. I was actually a tenor singer before I went with Bill. I have a natural tenor voice, but then my range dropped a little after I started singing lead for him. I had to go down for low notes and it brought my range down. I could tell after I quit. Anyway, I learned a lot about singing just through singing with him, harmonizing with him. I would kind of sing to him. I realized in another way, because he was a tenor, he would sing to his lead singers.
I knew before I went with him that dress means a lot for folks who go on stage. They should look nice and he was always a well-dressed guy. And I’d go with him when he went shopping for clothes. A lot of the guys in the band wouldn’t do that but I liked it, too. I got a few suits that were kind of like his. He didn’t mind that either if you got dressed up like he did.
KD: So you learned about the importance of stage appearance from Bill Monroe. What was it like to work on stage right next to “The Father of Bluegrass?”
DM: Bill used to say “You get in there and crowd me.” We had this one microphone and when I got a job with him I’d stand back because “that’s Bill Monroe. I don’t want to get too close to him.” (chuckle) And he’d say, “Now you get in there with that guitar and you crowd me.” He meant get right in there close. And there’s something about that. There’s a lot of interplay between musicians when they’re working real close together. It’s kind of like competition in a way.
KD: And he probably need that rhythm
DM: Hmm, he did. He wanted that in there.
KD: Some folks might not realize that you did start as a banjo player.
DM: I did. I sure did. I heard Earl Scruggs in 1950. My older brother, GC, he bought a 78rpm record of Flatt & Scruggs. Now I’d heard Bill Monroe because my older brother and dad listened to the Grand Ole Opry. It was before TV so we had the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. I can remember hearing Bill Monroe but for some reason I was probably too young for it to phase me. I heard Earl Scruggs when I was 11 playing that banjo. Oh buddy! That turned the light on up here somewhere. That’s what I wanted to do.
I was a guitar player. My brother taught me to play guitar when I was about 9 and I would back him up. He was a singer. Then I heard Earl and I said to myself: That’s what I want to do. I learned how to do it and I did it for about 10 years. And I thought I was good. (chuckle) And I played with Bill Monroe. I got a chance to play with Bill on a show…
KD: As a banjo player?
DM: As a banjo player up in New York City at New York University. He offered me a job. It’s a funny thing the way that worked out. I kind of hesitated. I was playing with Jack Cooke in Baltimore and I liked playing with Jack. We were kind of close in age and I was really enjoying playing banjo. For some reason after a few months I decided, “I think I’ll go down and take that job.” But when I got there he told me “I need a guitar player, still yet.” He needed a lead singer and I didn’t realize in those days how important that is to the band. And he said, “I need that worse than anything in the world. I want you to play guitar and sing the lead.”
And I thought, “I don’t know what you’re thinking.” I didn’t say anything to Bill. He said, “I want to try you out doing that.” At the same time Bill Keith came in the band
DM: Yes, Brad. And he had some new things for Bill. He had some new style banjo playing, which I never had really heard that chromatic style. Bill told me: “You know if you do this, you’ll like this better than what you’re doing now.” And I thought, “I don’t think so.” (chuckle) But he was right. It was a challenge to go back over to the guitar and having to learn verses to songs that I never had sung before. I’d always sung the chorus but I didn’t really know songs all the way through. I had to learn a lot of his material. found out he had sung them on record but he didn’t know them really. He had just read them off the paper. Whenever he got out on the road, the lead singer had to learn the song.
That’s kind of the way it was for me. I never did go back to playing the banjo. I did quit Bill and went to California and was playing with the Golden State Boys out there. I was playing banjo but it wasn’t for long. It might have been six months. I came back to the East Coast. From that time on I just played guitar and sang.
Del’s next big project is the 8th Annual DelFest May 25-28 at the Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland. Keep track of all things Del at www.delmcouryband.com.
Happy, happy birthday, Del! Here’s to many more.