Multiple award-winners The Travelin’ McCourys and Sam Bush played a double bill of bluegrass at the Birchmere Wednesday evening. The Travelin McCourys, formed from current and former members of the Del McCoury Band, took the stage first.
Fronted by Del’s son Ronnie (mandolin), the band also includes his little brother Rob (five-string banjo), Jason Carter (fiddle), Alan Bartram (bass), and Cody Kilby (guitar).
In addition to winning the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 2018, the McCourys have racked up an impressive record of individual honors. Ronnie is an eight-time (yes, eight-time) International Bluegrass Music Association mandolin player of the year, while Jason took top honors for fiddler player on no less tahan five occasions. Rob and Alan have both received recognition for being the best at their instrument as well. A collaboration between Ronnie and Rob in 1996 received the IBMA’s award for best record.
With such an impressive resume, expectations for the Travelin’ McCourys were high, and these talented artists surpassed them. They coaxed gorgeous tones from their instruments, pure and flowing like an Appalachian mountain stream. Decades of experience playing together allows the McCourys to achieve exceptionally precise vocal harmonies. I would challenge anyone who doesn’t think they like traditional bluegrass to listen to the McCourys.
The McCoury’s set had plenty of variety, with original songs, covers, and instrumentals. While they drew largely from the one album they’ve released, they started their set with a song that’s not on the album: Earl Scruggs’ “Passin Thru.” Later in the set, the covered “I Live on a Battlefield,” from Nick Lowe’s country album, The Impossible Bird. They finished their set with a cover of The Grateful Dead song “Cumberland Blues,” dedicated to the memory of lyricist Robert Hunter, who just passed away.
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Ronnie handled most of the lead vocals, but Jason got in a few songs, too. One ended by referring to several lines from “Long Black Veil.” Several members of the banding contributed songs to their album; Alan wrote “The Hardest Heart.” The McCourys received a well-deserved standing as they left the stage.
Sam Bush helped create the genre of progressive bluegrass as a member of the band New Grass Revival in the ’70s. In a deviation from the traditionally all acoustic and drumless format of bluegrass, the band incorporates, at times, electric guitar and bass as well as drums. Sam has been winning awards since his teens, when he came in first place three times in the junior division of the National Oldtime Fiddler’s Contest. He’s even more esteemed for his work on the mandolin, having been named the IBMA’s top player four times. Sam has shared Grammy Awards with Emmylou Harris (Best Country Performance) and Bela Fleck (Best Pop Instrumental Performance), and contributed to the soundtrack O Brother, Where Art Thou (Album of the Year).
After opening his set with “On the Road,” Sam covered Cory Morrow’s “Nashville Blues.” He followed that an instrumental from his days in New Grass Revival, “Crooked Smile.” Of “Everything Is Possible,” he told the audience that “not every song can be positive, but this one is.”
Sam played with Doc Watson on his 1974 album, Memories. He combined Doc’s version of the traditional “Columbus Stockade Blues” with the style of Leon Russell. It was fitting that he played a song he recorded with Del McCoury, “The Letter.”
Although many have learned “Little Bessie” from the recording by the Country Gentlemen, Sam said that the song actually comes from the album Bluegrass Holiday by the Kentucky Mountain Boys. Jeff Black wrote “Circles,” which Sam introduced as “a song of thanks.” Sam co-wrote “Bowling Green” with John Randall about Sam’s father’s love of fiddle music.
The instrumental “Ground Speed” led into the final piece of the set, a medley of John McLaughlin’s instrumental “Raju” and “Stop the Violence.” He received a standing ovation, and 0came out with the McCourys for the encore. Jason soloed on “Vamps In The Middle.” Before the instrumental Roanoke, Sam joked that Ronnie has the same haircut as his dad. The pickers brought it home with Sam’s “Bringing in the Georgia Mail,” and received another standing ovation.
Here are some pictures of Sam Bush Band performing at The Birchmere on Oct. 23, 2019. All photos copyright and courtesy of Ari Strauss.
Here are some pictures of The Travelin’ McCourys performing at The Birchmere on Oct. 23, 2019. All photos copyright and courtesy of Ari Strauss.