The Travelin’ McCourys at Podunk

This review of the Travelin’ McCourys’ set at Podunk comes from Dick Bowden, who we hope will become one of our new correspondents when we launch our expanded site later this year. He will post under the name, “The Old Timer,” which refers not only to his status as a formerly young person, but also to the prism through which he views the bluegrass world.

At the Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival in E. Hartford, CT on Thursday (8/4), I got to see The Travelin’ McCourys show for the first time. Podunk, by the way, was the actual name of an Indian tribe/town on the festival site back in the old days.

The band is essentially The Del McCoury Band minus Del. Sons Rob McCoury on banjo and Ronnie on mandolin provided the McCoury part of the equation, with Alan Bartram on bass on Jason Carter on fiddle. They frequently perform with guest guitarists.

Cody Kilby was the guitar man last night, and he did a great job. Just back from a show in Brownfield ME, the boys were loose and happy. They did a workshop and took questions, then closed the show Thursday night.

My long-standing questions about their show were quickly answered. No, they don’t plug in for a bluegrass festival crowd. They didn’t wear suits, but they did tuck in their shirttails. They sing bluegrass songs, some familiar, some not. Their first instrumental was a current old time pickers’ jam number, The Squirrel Hunter which they got from John Hartford (Ronnie played guitar on Hartford’s recording), but done quite uptempo in a real bluegrassy style. Alan Bartram asked the crowd how many squirrel hunters were there and he got a fair showing of hands! He mentioned that he asked that question at a show in NYC last month and didn’t get a single raised hand!

Ronnie and Rob were their usual cool, calm selves. If it’s possible, Jason seemed to “pour it on” even more than he does in Del’s shows.

Jason Carter and Alan Bartram do more solo singing than in Del’s show. And wow…  can those guys sing! Jason in particular has a warm, emotional baritone that beats anything in today’s country music. He really shined on When It Comes to You. Alan sang lead on his own composition, a wonderful tribute to Del neatly titled The Old Boy’s Still in the Game.

After “The Old Boy…” concluded, who bounds up on the stage (in an untucked Hawaiian shirt) but The Old Boy hissownself!? Del!

The crowd reacted as if Oprah had landed amongst them, it was really a treat to see!  Stunned, then thrilled! Del said he hated to interrupt, but he wanted to sing Happy 50th Birthday to festival chairman Roger Moss. They got Roger up on stage for a big round of hugs and handshakes.

Del sang 3 or 4 great numbers with the boys, including the Jimmy Martin power trio She’s Left Me Again and the evergreen 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. Lordy, the crowd nearly swooned for that one.

Apparently this was only the second time Del had ever crashed a Travelin’ McCourys show. Nobody minded…

Del turned the stage back over to the boys and Cody Kilby burned down Big Mon. Now, when Cody plays in Kentucky Thunder with Ricky Skaggs, it seems to my memory he usually has a pick-up in his guitar with a foot switch to kick up the volume for his breaks. With this show he and the sound man had really figured it out. His rhythm playing was very appropriate but when he stepped into the mike for a break, holy smokes…  talk about power! And his guitar didn’t roar and boom on the bass notes. Guitar soloists take note. You can be heard!

Ronnie sang several tunes he’s been known for down through the years, including some old Sidemen numbers from the Station Inn days. Rob tore Train 45 to pieces, and picked some fine banjo on Farewell Blues. Their longest salute to the “jam band” genre was a wonderful version of John Hartford’s Vamp in the Middle with Jason Carter singing some great blues notes. They really stretched out for the pickin’. Even good ol’ meat and potatoes Rob was doing some wild stuff on his banjo, sort of ‘J.D. Crowe improvises with Sonny Osborne stuff.’  While the song was instantly recognizable, they didn’t copy Hartford, Vassar Clements or Norman Blake’s breaks at all. Very nice. An effective jam band number.

“The Old Boy” (I like that!) rejoined them near the end of the set as a light rain drove the crowd right up under the stage roof with them. He and Ron did a terrific True Life Blues in honor of Bill Monroe’s centennial. Del did Rain and Snow with the crowd singing along lustily. Del quipped “You’re better’n I am!”

They closed the show with a super-rousing White House Blues and Del was so pumped up he sang a high B note yodel in his last “Gone a long time,” which I’ve never heard him do.

Then apparently they jumped a red-eye to Vail, CO.

So now I know how The Travelin’ McCourys sound. Familiar but fresh! These guys deserve big success.