The first time now-legendary Del McCoury
played bluegrass music in New York City, back in 1962, he was
playing banjo for Bill Monroe. It was not only McCoury’s first
time playing the city; it was also his first time playing music
with the man who created the genre.
When asked about his opportunity to perform with Monroe, McCoury told GO Brooklyn by phone from his home near Nashville, "I was kind of lucky." But there was probably more talent than luck involved.
Here’s how it happened:
On his way from Nashville to New York for a show, Monroe passed through Baltimore (a hotbed of bluegrass music at the time) to pick up a well-known guitar player named Jack Cooke. He also picked up Jack’s buddy, young McCoury, to play banjo. Monroe must have liked his playing at the show, because afterwards, he offered McCoury a steady job in his band, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys - the premier bluegrass band and the band that gave the genre its name.
When McCoury finally decided to go to Nashville and take Monroe up on the job offer, it turned out that what Monroe really needed was a guitar player and lead singer, so McCoury, who also played guitar, tried out.
Monroe hired him and McCoury was lead singer and guitarist for a year, before leaving to pursue other opportunities and, a short time later, to form his own bluegrass band.
Four decades later, as the 66-year-old (but he looks much younger) leader of his own award-winning bluegrass band (which includes his two sons, mandolin player, Ronnie, and banjo player, Rob, award-winners in their own right), McCoury play a show at Celebrate Brooklyn, at the Prospect Park band shell, on Thursday, June 30.
A member of the Grand Ole Opry and winner of eight Entertainer of the Year awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association - plus individual awards for each of the group’s members, the band is known for its instrumental and vocal virtuosity, as well as for their exciting stage shows.
The band gives flawless, exciting performances, which always seem fresh no matter how many times you’ve seen them at work. As tight as the band is, they are somehow relaxed at the same time. Maybe that’s because McCoury always looks like he’s having a great time - and he is. McCoury says that’s partly because he enjoys connecting with his audience, and partly because they don’t work from a strict set list.
They hit the stage not always knowing exactly which songs they’ll play from their vast repertoire; they’ve recorded 15 albums including their latest, "The Company We Keep," which comes out on McCoury Music on July 12. And they’re always willing to take requests from the audience - perhaps for McCoury’s best-known songs: "High on a Mountain," "Get Down on Your Knees and Pray," "Let an Old Racehorse Run" and "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" - which means that every show can be different. That keeps it interesting for the audience and also, according to McCoury, for the band.
The Del McCoury Band has taken bluegrass music to audiences that probably have never heard of Bill Monroe. The band has toured with such non-bluegrass acts as Phish and Leftover Salmon, made a CD (and later toured) with Steve Earle, and has been part of the very popular Down From The Mountain tour, and even played (and were a hit with the audience) at Bonnaroo, the 80-act, multi-stage, genre-crashing music festival in Tennessee.
McCoury doesn’t worry about playing before a new audience of people in Park Slope who may not have experienced bluegrass.
Here’s how he explains it: "I’ve always had confidence from the time I started playing music. I was not afraid to get in front of any audience and play on stage. I say to myself, ’Somebody in this audience is going to like me, I know somebody is.’ You can’t win everybody, but you’ll win some people. If they are like I was when I first heard bluegrass, you’re going to get a percentage of those people - because it’s exciting music."
There’s lots of renewed interest in bluegrass music (even here in Brooklyn there are bluegrass jams and concerts springing up, it seems, weekly). McCoury’s advice to fledgling bluegrass pickers is the same he gave to his sons: Listen to the masters - Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs and the other bluegrass greats of that generation.
"When they were starting out, I told Ronnie to listen to the guy who invented bluegrass mandolin playing, and that’s Bill Monroe," recalled McCoury. "And I told Rob to listen to Earl Scruggs. The genius of Earl’s banjo playing is that he can think so far ahead. He never plays the same thing the same way twice. Monroe, [Lester] Flatt and Scruggs, fiddler Chubby Wise [which some say is the classic lineup of the Blue Grass Boys] - that was a once-in-a-lifetime combination of guys that got together to play music.
"My sons listened to southern rock when they were growing up," McCoury continues, "and I guess it comes out in their playing. And there were also younger bluegrass musicians at the time, and my boys listened to them, too. But they knew that Monroe and Scruggs - these old dudes were the ones that came up with this at the beginning - they set the standard. We’re lucky they recorded on a major label" - and that those recordings are still readily available.
McCoury adds that the younger generation has an advantage that his generation didn’t have.
"We could listen to these musicians on the radio or on records, but if we wanted to see what they were doing, we had to go to a live performance, and you couldn’t go right up to them and look at what their fingers were doing," said McCoury. "Back then, without instructional videos, we learned more slowly. But if you’re determined to learn to play, you will."
Anybody who wants to see how determination can lead to perfection should make their way over to Celebrate Brooklyn this Thursday and watch a master at work.
Tina Aridas is co-curator of the Good Coffeehouse Music Parlor series at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture in Park Slope.
Celebrate Brooklyn presents The Del
McCoury Band on June 30 at 7:30 pm at the Prospect Park band
shell. Enter the park at Prospect Park West and Ninth Street.
Admission to all concerts is free, but a $3 donation is suggested.
For more information, call (718) 855-7882 ext. 45 or visit www.celebr