The Travelin’ McCourys live at Dancing Bear Appalachian Lodge, Townsend, TN

The Travelin’ McCourys are a busy bunch. On the one hand, they’re carrying on a legacy in tandem with their father, bluegrass great Del McCoury. On the other, they’re taking that heritage forward towards the future, sharing a sound that not only draws from the basics of bluegrass but also expands its parameters to entice new audiences less familiar with the form.

On Thursday, July 6, in the idyllic setting of the beautiful Dancing Bear Appalachian Lodge, located mere miles from Smoky Mountains National Park, the band, comprised of brothers Ronnie McCoury (mandolin) and Rob McCoury (banjo), as well as Jason Carter (fiddle), Cody Kilby (guitar), and Alan Bartram (bass), proved they had the means to carry out both means successfully.

Setting up shop in a gazebo before an intimate crowd positioned on a slopping lawn, the band played a selection of songs played a set of songs drawn from contemporary classics and the members’ own originals. A spirited cover of the Grateful Dead’s perennial favorite, Cumberland Blues, set the tone, followed in short order by an imaginative reworking of The Whole of the Moon by the Irish band, The Waterboys. Then, with Carter’s composition Queen of the Nashville Night, the band really took flight, offering up a rousing set of solos that found each of the players soaring in sync. 

Consequently, when Kilby lauded Ronnie McCoury as “the greatest mandolin player in the universe,” and “possibly the greatest mandolin player of all time,” he wasn’t simply spouting hyperbole. After all, this is the same individual who ranks as the IBMA’s mandolin player of the year no less than eight times. So too, the individual kudos the musicians have accrued (Rob McCoury’s as IBMA banjo player of the year, Carter and Bartram’s wins on their respective instruments) and the 2018 Grammy the group received for Best Bluegrass Album, offer definitive proof of their prowess.

Not surprisingly then, the evening provided a continuing showcase of the band’s craft and creativity. The drive and dexterity delivered in Let Her Go (another cover, this even less likely given it’s originally by the otherwise obscure band Passenger), John Hartford’s No End of Love and the band’s own original, Runaway Train, resulted in a series of spellbinding performances that kept the crowd enthralled.

That trend continued with a remarkable replay of Kilby’s Fiery Gizzard, an ample example of why Kilby has also been cited as IBMA’s guitar play of the year. His agile fretwork, and the band’s adroit arrangements, naturally served the song well, proving the point that not only are they superb individual instrumentalists but a decidedly adroit ensemble as well.

Carter had a chance to shine as a vocalist with his own King of the Hill, while Kilby took another lead on his Blue Letters. The band as a whole took a further dive into the Dead’s catalog courtesy of Brown-Eyed Women, providing another example of their devotion to populist precepts. 

The show’s surprise opener was Wyatt Ellis, a 14 year-old mandolin virtuoso who’s shared stages with Vince Gill, Molly Tuttle, Marty Stuart, Mark O’Connor, and Daily & Vincent, and has already made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry. With a makeshift band in tow, Ellis played a striking hour-long set of songs, including his first single recorded with Sierra Hull, Grassy Cove. The crowd was naturally enthralled, further reason why this incredibly talented young man clearly has a remarkable future before him. 

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.