For more than fifty years, Del McCoury’s music has defined authenticity for hard core bluegrass fans as well as a growing number of fans among those only vaguely familiar with the genre. McCoury is something special, a living link to the days when bluegrass was made only in hillbilly honkytonks, schoolhouse shows and on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, yet also a commandingly vital presence today, from prime time and late night talk show TV to music festivals where audiences number in the hundreds of thousands.
Born in York County, PA seventy five years ago, Del McCoury would once have seemed an unlikely candidate for legendary status. Bitten hard by the bluegrass bug when he heard Earl Scruggs’ banjo in the early ’50s. McCoury became a banjo picker himself, working in the rough but lively Baltimore and D.C. bar scene into the early 1960s. He got his first taste of the limelight when he joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in early 1963; the Father of Bluegrass moved McCoury from the banjo to guitar, made him his lead singer, and gave him a lifetime’s worth of bluegrass tutelage direct from the source. Flash-forward to 1990s and the Del McCoury Band is on top of the bluegrass world, along the way giving birth to a more startling phenomenon: the emergence of the group onto the larger musical scene as a unique torchbearer for the entire sweep of bluegrass and its history. For it turned out that the unmistakable authenticity of McCoury’s music-along with his good-natured willingness to keep alert for new sounds and new opportunities-had bred fans in some unlikely places. That bluegrass-bred stars like Gill and Alison Krauss (who first met Del at a bluegrass festival when she filled in for a missing fiddler of his) would sing his praises wasn’t surprising, but who would have expected country-rock icons like Steve Earle or jam bands like the supremely popular Phish to have joined in the chorus? By the second half of the ’90s, the acclaim-and Del’s open-mindedness-put McCourys in onstage jams with Phish and on the road and in the studio with Earle, bringing the Del McCoury Band’s fierce musicianship and its leader’s instantaneous, easygoing connection with listeners to new arenas. The group appeared on prime time television and began an ongoing series of visits to popular late night TV talk shows, toured rock clubs and college campuses, and found itself welcome at country and even jazz-oriented music festivals and venues.
Yet while reaching out to almost unimaginable audiences, Del’s music retains its signature characteristics. The fifth decade of that half-century of music making has been filled with new and ongoing triumphs. The Del McCoury Band has shown unprecedented stability, with but a single change in membership in twenty years; nine IBMA Entertainer of the Year trophies, their namesake earned membership in the cast of the legendary Grand Ole Opry in 2003, and the Band earned their first Best Bluegrass Album Grammy award two years later followed by their second Grammy win in 2014 (to go along with double digit nominations); they traveled with the groundbreaking post-O Brother “Down From The Mountain” tour, performed and recorded (on his Grammy-winning These Days) with Gill and with country star Dierks Bentley; they are a regular at the spectacular Bonnaroo Music Festival, and Del’s namesake Festival, DelFest has quickly become one of the premier string band events in the country showcasing acts ranging from bluegrass legend Bobby Osborne to Phish’s frontman Trey Anastasio.
Del might be 76, but he’s singing better than ever and showing no signs of slowing down.