With every appearance he makes on the stage, Del McCoury continues to add to a legacy that will live on as long as people celebrate bluegrass and all that extends from it.
And rather than just partake in it as a revered player and accomplished veteran now approaching his 85th birthday, Del is merrily presiding over the colorful progression of this music form while performing in the embrace of talented close friends and family members who’ve been his bandmates for decades.
“Del and the boys” completed a four-night run at the Barns at Wolf Trap this past week, defying a canceled flight out of Nashville and frigid temperatures to effectively take over the renovated 18th century structure and present three Del McCoury Band albums in their entirety on three of those four evenings.
But the night of Jan. 20 was a bit of a twist and the most unpredictable, as the band had advertised it to be an all-request live show of sorts and invited advance submissions that ultimately helped the group put together a fantastic and festive setlist.
Carefully avoiding songs they’d played the two nights prior or were slated to play on Sunday night, the Saturday night affair exceeded expectations as Del warmed the audience — unseated on the ground level, seated in the balcony — with his charisma, his stories, and his delightful sense of humor in between every tune.
“We got about 80 of ‘em – we’ll get to them all!” kidded the elder McCoury, who was, of course, joined by his sons, Ronnie and Rob McCoury, on mandolin and banjo, respectively, Jason Carter on fiddle, and Alan Bartram on bass. The award-winning squad was rounded out by a third generation of the McCoury branch: Ronnie’s youngest son, Heaven, on both acoustic and electric guitar.
Del shared his pleasure to see the deep cuts fans had selected leading up to the occasion, which marked a year since the group’s last visit to the area, a three-night sold-out run last January at the Barns. In the meantime, the group hosted what was a fantastic and jam-packed 15th edition of the beloved DelFest event held in Cumberland each May.
Listen to the Del McCoury Band’s 2022 studio album Almost Proud via Spotify:
Each of the nights last week at the Barns was sold out, too, but with such a thoughtful collection of songs, Saturday night became one for the ages, as Del and his crew playfully interacted the whole time with the audience, including folks who’d made the trip down from York County, Pennsylvania, where Ronnie and Rob grew up.
Fans in attendance enjoyed all-time favorites like John Sebastian’s “Nashville Cats” and lesser heard fiddle infernos like Bill Monroe’s “Katy Hill,” which gave Carter — a five-time IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year winner who released his own album in 2022 — a chance to display his incredible skills, drawing praise and excitement from Del early in the set.
But Ronnie, Rob, and Alan have each won their respective awards as well — Ronnie an astounding eight times — and, regardless of accolades, these men are more polished each night out. Del, who got his start in Monroe’s legendary Bluegrass Boys, is considered by many in the genre today as the “king” of it — or so at least Sam Bush blurts out time and time again each spring at DelFest.
Having recorded since the 1960s, Del has seen bluegrass transform and has welcomed it with open arms, evidenced by the diverse groups invited to his annual festival. The presence of his grandson Heaven represents what any ear would agree is a welcome next step for the sound of the McCourys.
Swapping the acoustic for the electric, Heaven infused a rich, bluesy touch that sat just right within this group’s intricate, sprawling compositions.
“He’s got his own band, this guy does,” Del referred to Heaven’s R&B/soul/funk/pop outfit, The Broomestix. Heaven also performs with his cousin, Jacob Van Buer, another of the talented McCoury grandchildren.
Del’s smile was wide, a twinkle from the gems on his dark suit. Anyone could sense how proud the band founder was to hear Heaven’s licks, to witness his flatpicking on the acoustic and to see the rise it got out of a crowd, which featured an assortment of characters who find a similar proximity to the DelFest stage every year.
Del spoke of his grandson’s good ear, recollecting a time when he asked Heaven for help with song lyrics.
“He just wrote it down. … I said, ‘that’s what he says?’”
He was having fun with the young man.
“He plays the piano. He plays everything he looks at. He plays the girls, too!”
The crowd fell out.
“I’m sorry about that, Heaven,” Del apologized, but it was clear from the reaction of his bandmates that he gets a pass for such wisecracks.
With a blazing take on “Hot Wire” from 2018’s Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass, those in attendance got a first-hand look at what Del was trying to get at: a band pioneering new ground by way of its unique blend of instruments and voices. Impressive not just in his demeanor but his singing as well, Del hit remarkably high-pitch registers in this tune that paints the amusing image of a woman so vexing she could “hot wire the Lord.”
Revisit the Del McCoury Band’s 2018 album, Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass, via Spotify:
Later, Del and Ronnie would team up in tracks like “Sweet Appalachia,” with beautiful harmonies abounding, and Bartram was invited to the microphone to share his voice as well.
“These guys behind me, that’s The Travelin’ McCourys, you know,” Del brought everyone up to speed.
“They played a show last night here. They let me play about 30 minutes, then they played about 6 hours. … They go out on the road with Cody Kilby (another IBMA award winner), he’s a great guitar player. Their first CD they put out won a Grammy. … I know this because I was there, and I saw it.”
People couldn’t get enough of him and his nostalgia that guided much of the conversation. He spoke with dignity of the 110 signature Del McCoury guitars made some years back by Martin, one of the best makers on the planet. He fondly recalled Conon O’Brien asking to play the guitar he had with him for one of a couple Late Night Show appearances — he just couldn’t believe the TV star knew how to play.
One songwriter in particular received a heap of praise from Del: Shawn Camp, who penned some of Del’s personal favorites and is now the head singer of The Earls of Leicester.
Del also shouted out his granddaughter and Ronnie’s daughter, Emma, who he credited for running the “rolodex” in front of him, assisting on lyrics for some of the lesser played numbers. He covered his eyes, correcting himself to “teleprompter.”
“Let’s give Emma a hand. I think she’s reading my mind.”
The performance was streamed live on Nugs.net, and Ronnie took a moment to make sure everyone in the crowd greeted the folks watching from places remote.
“How about we do a couple Baltimore numbers? Anyone here from Baltimore?”
They knew it to be a heavily loaded question. Members of The Dirty Grass Players, one of the Charm City’s skyrocketing bluegrass bands and past DelFest Academy attendees themselves, were even on hand for the rewarding version of “Streets of Baltimore.”
“Since we’re on the topic of Baltimore …,” Ronnie gave the audience the backstory to his now-classic piece “Baltimore Johnny.” It’s a tune dedicated to fiddler John Glick, who long ago was in the McCoury’s band and to this day is one of Ronnie’s “heroes.” (Overcoming a spate of challenges, Glick still makes occasional appearances — violin in hand — in and around the blue-collar city.)
“We’ve sure enjoyed pickin’ and singin’ to you folks,” Del said as the band returned for its encore. And just before walking back out stage, it appeared he’d been informed that a special guest was in the house: a gentleman named Max Mandel, who years earlier had been his manager.
In a moving gesture, the elder McCoury dedicated the entire performance to his old friend.
“We’re going to do this whole show for you tonight, Max.”
Surrounded by so many who adore him and respect him, all the love Del offered up this past Saturday night in Vienna was immediately returned to him as thanks for everything he’s done and continues to do.
Here are home-developed, home-scanned 35mm (expired) film photos of the Del McCoury Band performing at the Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., the night of January 20, 2024. All images copyright and courtesy of Casey Ryan Vock.