While countless luminaries have visited the Savannah Music Festival, it is rare that someone who actually personifies an entire genre makes their way to Savannah.
Such is the case March 28th when Del McCoury and his band perform at the Lucas Theatre. The legendary vocalist and guitarist just celebrated his 80th birthday. His career mirrors the story of bluegrass, kicking into gear in the early 1960s with Bill Monroe, the man widely considered to be the father of bluegrass music.
McCoury first became enamored with bluegrass after hearing Earl Scruggs play banjo on the radio. He instantly went to work on Scruggs’ iconic three finger picking style, becoming a working banjo player in bars as a young man. Through these connections, McCoury was hired to play a gig with Monroe, who was desperate for a guitar player and lead singer. McCoury dropped the banjo, a move that would eventually lead him to front his own band.
“I got a job with Bill Monroe in 1963 when I had been playing about 10 years,” McCoury said. “I might of started banjo when I was about 11. I had played with bands before I ever went with Bill. He took me to New York City to play this show with him and he offered me a job. His biggest need was for a guitar player and lead singer. I never seriously went back to playing banjo after that.”
McCoury remained friends with Monroe until the aged troubadour’s passing. The patriarch of bluegrass music was known for being tough on a lot of the musicians in his bands, but Del McCoury says his relationship with Monroe was always amiable.
“I didn’t have a bit of trouble with Bill,” McCoury said. “He expected you to work hard when you got up on stage with him. I grew up on a farm and was used to hard work, kind of like he did. When he got to playing music he still worked hard. He expected you to get on stage with him and work hard with everything to do with the music business including traveling. I never had any words with Bill. I was friends with him until he died. I enjoyed working for him. He was a man of few words. He was kind of quiet and shy. People misunderstood him I think. But buddy, when he hit the stage he put it out there. He put that music out there.”
The showmanship and work ethic is something McCoury carried on from Monroe and, eventually, passed on to his own children. The Del McCoury Band has almost always consisted of McCoury’s two sons Rob and Ronnie on banjo and mandolin.
The two have become giants of bluegrass in their own rights, earning individual awards on their instruments and even a Grammy Award this past year with their own band, The Traveling McCourys. While Monroe often had to ride the musicians in his own band to work hard, McCoury never had to press his musical children very much.
“You know the kids had a pretty good work ethic,” McCoury said. “They were pretty good guys growing up. They won a Grammy with the last album they put out. I had a record released the same day as them and here they’ve won a Grammy and I didn’t. I might have to put a stop to that.” McCoury beamed with pride.
His band is still growing and going strong after decades of traveling and performing. McCoury played at the first bluegrass festivals put on by Carlton Haney. He and his band have played countless others since, and now put on their own festival in Cumberland, Maryland each Memorial Day weekend. Delfest allows the McCoury’s to visit and jam with other premier acts in bluegrass while giving a stage to up and coming young bands. One such band, North Carolina’s The Steep Canyon Rangers will open the Savannah Music Festival show.
The Del McCoury Band showcases the traditional elements of bluegrass but are always expanding the sound to make it new and fresh.
To see Del and his band play is to witness a vessel through which the story of bluegrass has manifested for the past 60 years.