The great Del McCoury leads his band in the first of three sold-out shows at The Barns at Wolf Trap on Jan. 19, 2023. (Photo by Casey Vock)
More music listeners are identifying as bluegrass fans than ever before, and that bodes well for everyone involved.
But if there’s one musician all of bluegrass should be celebrating in 2023, it’s got to be Del McCoury.
Accordingly, it was a festive night at The Barns at Wolf Trap on Thursday as the Del McCoury Band played the first of three sold-out shows, treating the rustic venue to an intimate set of tunes spanning the decades and wonderfully showcasing the masterful musicianship of this award-winning, world-class outfit, including McCoury’s two sons, Ronnie on mandolin and Robbie on banjo, as well as Jason Carter on the fiddle and Alan Bartram on the upright bass.
And as it has been for decades, any night with this gentlemanly crew is a treat in the form of a warm and unforgettable presentation of some of the most beautiful sounds you might ever hear coming off a stage.
Walking out to a standing ovation, Del basked in the love early in the engagement and would radiate it back to the audience all night long as he spoke from the heart and shared stories from his remarkable career to accompany the choice selections he and the band performed throughout the set, some at the shouted request of those in attendance.
It was his first time out this year, Del cheerfully told the crowd of excited onlookers, and it was his first time back in the DMV since late 2021. And while he suggested he might not be quite as polished as the rest of his squad, his voice was certainly crisp and clear by the time the group got to a welcomed and inspirited take on “Nashville Cats,” one that delighted everyone in the room.
An 83-year-old living legend, Del has every reason to be considered the sultan of the genre, a singer and guitar picker who has played with an unthinkable cast of musicians, including the man considered to have birthed bluegrass, Bill Monroe. A member of the Grand Ole Opry and a 15-time Grammy nominee with a couple of wins under his belt, Del’s up for another one next month after receiving a nod for his newest studio album, Almost Proud.
Stream the newest and Grammy-nominated Del McCoury Band studio album, Almost Proud, via Spotify:
And though he tends to heap the praise on those who came before him and those who gather around him whenever he plays, Del has long been an enormously and positively influential figure, arguably just as vital to the history and progression of bluegrass as his predecessor and former mentor.
Hosting the popular DelFest event now held each Memorial Day weekend out in Cumberland, Maryland, Del and his family have created not just an unforgettable experience for thousands of attendees but a highly visible opportunity for so many up-and-coming and even well-established bluegrass musicians to connect with their growing fan bases.
The Travelin’ McCourys, an extension of the Del McCoury Band venturing into the increasingly popular jamgrass realm, is one of the groups featured each year at DelFest, and with four-fifths of the band behind him, Del of course took a moment to point that out for anyone who might have been unaware of the newest McCourys project, which came to life back in 2009.
“This is the Travelin’ McCourys behind me,” he told The Barns, speaking into the mic like he was sitting in his living room, comfortable and unguarded.
“They got a good guitar player when they go out on the road,” Del gave a matter-of-fact plug for Travelin’ McCourys guitarist Cody Kilby, the most recent winner of the IBMA’s guitar player of the year award.
Though Cody obviously wasn’t there alongside him, the four other players standing with Del have each won the IBMA award as the very best at their respective instruments, a marvelous fact to consider each time this group assembles.
And Del was sure to praise each member, inviting the various voices to the mic as he went.
“This guy’s got a lot of projects going on,” he said of Carter, who’s currently promoting his solo album, Lowdown Hoedown, and will be playing the Grand Old Opry himself on March 1.
The senior McCoury asked both Carter and Bartram — who he said “sings pretty and plays bass at the same time” — to lead separate numbers as the night moved along. Whether blinding fast or drifting high, lonesome and blue, this group played and moved like a living organism, and just about everyone in attendance went along with them, bobbing, scooting and howling in their seats.
Weaving in and out of proximity to the collection of mics, Ronnie, Robbie and Jason, and even Alan, situated just behind Del, would giggle back and forth all night, inside-joking beauties who never missed a note, true professionals in every sense of the word and as tight of a unit as anyone can imagine. And that includes Del, who still perfectly times his patented G run, raising the guitar up high.
“Now comes the time in the show when we do requests,” Del said, grinning and leaning right into his well-worn Martin acoustic guitar. The asks came from every angle — this process itself clearly enjoyable for Del, his head flashing toward every voice he’d hear.
Called from the shadows, some were songs he seemed to have not considered for some time, and they brought back memories.
“What Made Milwaukee Famous!”
Del looked down to the first or second row, right in front of him.
“Are you from Milwaukee? … She wants to hear ‘What Made Milwaukee Famous,” he turned to the band, already convinced to do it.
Appropriate for the locale, several folks requested “Sweet Appalachia,” an Alan Johnston track that featured the gorgeous co-harmony of Del and Ronnie, who inherited the best of his father’s fantastic vocal abilities.
Openly reminiscing, Del recalled a moment with the late Jerry Lee Lewis at a tribute event, he rejoiced in his memories of days playing with the likes of Bobby Osborne, JD Crowe and Bobby Hicks, and he admitted that he’d be “talking here all night” if he got going on Flatt & Scruggs.
He found himself stumped at one point, searching for a song title and looking confusedly at his mates. There were giggles.
“You laugh,” he caught the room, “but you’ll be 80 someday too.”
And Del would check back in regularly with the audience, which seemed to include several folks close to the band, friends and likely family as well. Katy Daley, a respected DC area radio professional who’s been awarded for her work in bluegrass, received a kind shoutout from the stage and cheers from all around, a special moment for an important local figure.
Watch the Del McCoury Band live at Paste Studios on the Road: Delfest 2022 via YouTube:
“You folks don’t stay up late here, do ya?” Del asked the audience.
His charm yielded chuckles.
“We can’t afford a teleprompter,” he would eventually point out, fumbling with some sheets on his stand. “Anyone out there want a job running a teleprompter?”
As everyone cracked up, the music went on and ventured into material from the newest album, the title track of which was penned by the McCourys’ longtime friend Eric Gibson, one half of the beloved Gibson Brothers duo hailing from way, way up in Northern New York.
With a Carter-led, red-hot take on the old-time tune “Katy Hill,” the band nonchalantly showed off its unthinkable speed and precision, and with the prettiest take on “Queen Anne’s Lace,” the group projected heavenly sounds, with Robbie’s careful touch on the banjo creating a drift, all led by one of the most lovable and distinguishable voices in all of music — Del.
He soared in his classic “I Feel the Blues Moving In” and throughout the old-time hymn “Old Rugged Cross” and absolutely howled in “All Aboard.”
And while Del’s pitch might not always be quite as perfect as it has sounded for so much of his career, the man lets his soul shine through these songs, and one can’t help but admire his vision and the magic he began sharing so long ago when he officially welcomed his boys to the stage as just teenagers.
With the likes of Carter — who walked right up to Del and asked to join the band as a young man in 1992 — and later Bartram, who came on board in 2005, this band has gone on to define bluegrass. Along the way, they’ve made friends and shared songs in a manner and style that has perpetuated the evolution of the music, ushered in today’s wave of jamgrass catalysts, and ultimately attracted more listeners to the strings.
While any time spent with this hero and his comrades should be treasured, to witness the Del McCoury Band in the flesh at a time when bluegrass is more fashionable than ever before is to be pleasantly reminded of the importance of this man and his band.
Here are images of the Del McCoury Band performing at The Barns at Wolf Trap on Jan. 19, 2023. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.