Old Memories: Del McCoury Remembers Bill Monroe
Del McCoury doesn’t laugh. He giggles, like the schoolboy he was over sixty years ago. Those who attended the one of the “Breakfast with Bill Monroe” sessions at last month’s IBMA World of Bluegrass heard that giggle a lot as McCoury, in sharply creased blue jeans and his trademark white pompadour, reminisced about his time as a Blue Grass Boy, beginning with time that he and Bill (Brad) Keith met in a hotel lobby when they both came to Nashville in 1963 to audition as Bill Monroe’s banjo player.
Before he was a Blue Grass Boy, however, Del McCoury was a fan. At age nine, his brother G.C. taught him some guitar chords, and by the time he was 11 in 1950, he had moved to Scruggs-style banjo. That same year, Del learned that Bill Monroe and his band were going to be playing at a drive-in movie theater nearby. “I begged and begged [my older sister] to take me,” he remembers. “They played on top of the concession stand. They had one microphone, and when they got done with their song, the way people would applaud was by blowing their horn, because they’re sitting in their car with a speaker on the window.” It wasn’t long before that preteen boy was a grown man auditioning with Bill Keith for that banjo player position. Turns out Monroe also needed a guitar player and lead singer. Del got that job, and “Lo and behold, I kind of liked it!” He’d spend the next year as a Blue Grass Boy.
In honor of his old boss’ 100th birthday, McCoury recently released Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe, in both digital and vinyl formats. Where countless Monroe tributes cover the Father of Bluegrass’ best-known songs like “Blue Moon of Kentucky” or “Kentucky Waltz,” McCoury dug a little deeper for his track listing. “A lot of people have done [Monroe’s] most popular numbers,” he explains. “He’s recorded so many great songs that even he never sang on stage. Or if he did, by the time I came along in 1963 he’d completely forgotten about those songs. So I wanted to do some of those.” These deep cuts include “Lonesome Truck Driver’s Blues” and a stellar version of Hank Williams’ “Alabama Waltz.” The songs on Old Memories remain largely faithful to Monroe’s versions. Says McCoury, “If you take it out of the same tempo that [Monroe] had it, or the same key, it kind of changes the sound. I wanted to keep it that way while I could still sing in the keys he did.”
Modest to a fault, Del doesn’t talk much about his performance on the album, instead choosing to concentrate on the rest of the band’s contributions. They—sons Ronnie and Rob, Jason Carter, and Alan Bartram—do a fine job, as per usual. McCoury is especially full of praise for Carter, who played up to three fiddle parts on each song, parts that were originally played by fiddling giants like Vassar Clements, Gordon Terry, and Dale Potter: “[Jason and I] were talking one day and he said ‘Who should we get to play the other fiddles?’ I said ‘We’re going to get you to play the other fiddles,’ because he knew the lead. If he knows the lead, there’s nobody who can play the other parts as good as he could because he knows what he’s playing to.”
At an age when some would consider retirement, Del McCoury shows no signs of slowing. In fact, he’s more prolific than many artists half his 72 years, playing numerous shows and recording with artists from a multitude of genres. Earlier this year, the band collaborated with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on a delightful album that blended bluegrass and New Orleans jazz, two styles that aren’t as disparate as one might think. Case in point, “Mullensburg Joys,” recorded (under varying song titles) by both Monroe and Jelly Roll Morton. As Del remembers, the Father of Bluegrass was fond of elements of jazz music: “Bill Monroe said to a friend of mine backstage at the Opry one time, ‘You know a good sound?’ And the guy said, ‘No, I don’t, Mr. Monroe.’ Bill said, ‘Horns.’ [Horns] can do what a voice can, and Bill was interested in fiddles on that account. He knew the fiddle was the only thing in the band that could duplicate what a voice does. That really interested him, and I imagine that horns were the same thing with him.”
Though McCoury was only a Blue Grass Boy for a year, the lessons he learned have lasted for five decades. He’s incorporated a few components of Bill Monroe’s style as a band leader into his own shows: “I learned a lot of things just by his example. He’d take requests from the audience, and I do that a lot. Once I get the band introduced I take requests, and I’m lucky that they’ll request my songs.” Giggling again, he jokes, “If they request other people’s songs, I’m in trouble!”
When talking about the future, Del gets serious. He mentions he’d like to work with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for a second album, and he has plans for another Del McCoury Band record, but don’t press him on the specifics: “I don’t think of the promotions or anything except the music,” he states. “I guess I keep my mind clear for that and for the stage. I really enjoy doing records because you get so much satisfaction out of doing a good record. [It’s] same with a show: I like to put everything I’ve got in a show, which is harder for me to do it now than years ago. My voice is not what it was at one time: it’ll be good some days and some days it won’t do like I want it to. But for the most part I’m thankful I still have it.”
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