By Jake May
Ronnie McCoury was just 14 years old in 1981 when he joined the Del McCoury Band, led by his father (and, of course, the band’s namesake) Del McCoury. McCoury–Ronnie, that is–had only been playing the mandolin for six months at that point, but his father decided it was time to find out if the young musician could cut it. As Ronnie puts it, it was “sink or swim.”
By 1986, McCoury’s younger brother Robbie had joined the band as well, but it was not a surprise that the group was filled with members of the same family; the McCoury’s have always been a musical family. “Music was in the house all the time,” explains Ronnie. However, McCoury stresses that his father did not have a grand plan to form a family band: “[My father] often said that he didn’t really know if we would be able to do it or want to do it… I imagine if we couldn’t cut it, we wouldn’t have still been in it.”
Of course, McCoury could indeed cut it, with his expert mandolin playing leading to a prolific, nearly-40-year career that saw him excell not only in The Del McCoury Band, but also in the Travelin’ McCourys, as a solo artist and as a producer.
On Dec. 21, McCoury joined his father and other special guests for Del’s 80th Birthday celebration at the Capitol Theatre. Below, we spoke about his father’s legacy, joining the band at 14 and his work outside The Del McCoury Band.
How did the idea to celebrate your father’s 80th birthday at The Cap come about?
Well, we live here in Nashville and my father is a member of the Grand Ole Opry, which is the longest running live radio show in the world. It’s the epitome of this kind of music. You have to be asked by everyone to join, it’s not like you can just join. There’s only been about 80-something artists since 1925 that have been asked, so it’s a pretty elite thing for musicians. My father’s actual birthday is Feb. 1. At the back end of February 2019, they did something that they’ve never done before and they called it a “Grand Del Opry” for one night. We had a big lineup, mainly Nashville folks like Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and Old Crow Medicine Show. It was a pretty big lineup and there was a lot more than that. Well, I got a call from Mr. Shapiro up there and he said, “Hey man, I see what you’re doing down there and we’d love to have something for us up here in the North to help celebrate.” It was very kind of him to do that, so we got this thing rolling and that’s how it kind of started. This is the year-end.
I suppose we’re approaching his 81st birthday.
[Laughs] Yes, exactly. Anyhow, as far as the show goes, it was very kind of everybody there to help set this up and they got a buddy Andy Falco, the hometown boy in bluegrass, and Vince [Herman] and Drew [Emmitt] from Leftover Salmon. At one point in the early 2000’s, we did a tour with Leftover. It was called the Under the Influence Tour and it was, as Vince Herman said, “My dad is kind of influential,” so it’s “under the influence.” At the end of that year, after we had been touring too, is when they asked my father to become a member of the Opry. It was pretty neat. And then of course we have Jerry Douglas, an old friend. He and my father go way back; Jerry started playing professionally at 18. We’re from Pennsylvania, Jerry is originally from Ohio, and he moved to the D.C. area to play this kind of music and my dad would see him a lot. When we moved to Nashville in the early 90s, Jerry produced two or three of our records here, so we have a long relationship. One of his oldest friends, the dog himself, Grisman, who– Well, the first night my father ever played with Bill Monroe as a bluegrass Boy was New York University in 1962. There was a kid going to school there, David Grisman, and he was a taper. He taped the show and met my father then, and they struck up a friendship that is pretty long standing. So, he [flew] in. They’ve been doing a lot of duet shows while the Travelin’ McCourys have been kind of building a career. We were just down in Mexico at a thing called Strings & Sol and I got to see Andy and Vince and Drew. We were just talking about a few things and how to make the show work.
To go back in time a bit, I’ve heard a little bit about how you came to join your father’s band. I wanted to ask you directly about that story. I think I read that you were only 13 when you joined the band, or at least around that age. If you wouldn’t mind relaying that story again, I’m sure everyone would be interested in hearing directly from you.
I started at 14, I had just turned 14. I was playing rhythm; the mandolin is a rhythm and lead instrument. I was kind of just playing rhythm and a little bit of lead. My dad put me in after playing six months, just kind of “sink or swim” as I always say. That was 1981. I’m a little bit older than my brother, 4 years, and he started in 1986, I think. We have been at it a long time with him. Music was in the house all the time, but my dad worked through the ‘70s and through the ‘80s as a logger. Just hard work. It wasn’t until I was 18, and graduated highschool in ‘85 that he didn’t work in the woods any longer. We just kind of played music and made the decision a couple years late to come to Nashville.
Was it always your father’s plan to have you and your brother join the band, or did he wait and see that you could cut it before asking you?
[Laughs]. That’s a good way of putting it. He put us right in it. I imagine if we couldn’t cut it, we wouldn’t have still been in it. Music is his life, as it is with most musicians. He takes it very seriously and he’s often said that he didn’t really know if we would be able to do it or want to do it. There’s a lot that goes with it, the travel, being in a family band, all that stuff. But we did it and we’re still at it.
Speaking of still being at it, obviously your dad has had a long career even before you guys joined or a long history of playing music. I was wondering as you’re reflecting on his 80th year celebrations, what are some moments throughout your time playing as a family that stand out if you can think of any?
There’s a lot. To me, there are a lot of high points. He’s in a bluegrass Hall of Fame, and like I said, the pinnacle of this kind of music would be a member of the Grand Ole Opry. He heard the show when he was a kid, it’s been on the radio since ‘25. It never went off the air on a Saturday night, in all those years through tornados or whatever. It somehow survived. It’s a big deal for him, it may not be for people these days because back then, radio was TV. When you think of Hank Williams and Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash and whoever, they were all there. They were all asked to be a part of it and he’s right up there with them. But also the friends we’ve made along the way. People tell me that my dad has meant so much to them. The boys in Phish, they come up and tell me that they have the epiphany– In about 1990 we released this record and these guys were riding around in a van. Jeff Mosier in Atlanta told them to get this CD of my dad’s. Trey [Anastasio] told me it was the most played CD in his house that year and in the van. That kind of stuff just knocks me out. Jerry Garcia told me that he saw my dad in 1963 and he wanted to see Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys and he wanted to be in the band at the time. He said, “I saw that band and your dad was there. It was so influential to me.” That knocks you out as a kid, like, “Wow my dad is cool.”
I think that’s the cool thing about the extended scene or what we cover. I know many people (myself included) have been introduced to bluegrass through listening to the Dead or Phish. Just like the actual members of those bands, once they hear that amazing music, they want to go to the source and your dad is one of the sources. That’s gotta be pretty amazing to think about.
At this stage, because he is 80 years old, and the passing of that first generation that started this music–That music is not very old, it was really created in the mid ‘40s, and somebody’s dad is the next generation that came through it. At this point, he’s one of the big dogs and leaders of that. He learned from the well. That kind of stuff is very touching to me, to hear people tell me this stuff through the years. Now guys like David Grisman or Ricky Skaggs or Sam Bush, that’s the generation under my dad. They see my dad at 80 and they say, “We can do that” or “We want to be able to do it that long.” Longevity, you know?
You’ve also worked with your dad as a producer. As you said earlier, your father takes music very seriously, so I was curious–people often think of producers as the ones who bring down the hammer on the recording artists. I was wondering what the process is like for you when you’re working with your dad in that way rather than being just a player in his band?
My dad produced a lot of his own stuff. So when I started, the first time I recorded in a studio with him I was 18 and I watched the process. You watch and you learn as the years go by. And then I see that the next guy who kind of produced my dad was Jerry Douglas. Then I’m a young 20’s guy and I’m learning from him. Basically, when you have somebody that is as talented as my dad, there’s not much you can really do except help with the sound. I did a lot of song-finding and then together in the studio we do a lot of arranging. So the combination of all that is how I help my dad, we kind of co-produce everything.
I also wanted to talk a little bit about the Travelin’ McCourys. What drove you and your brother to want to pursue your own project? Obviously your work with your dad is going to influence you, but in ways did you want to do your own thing, if at all?
As anybody wants to do it in life when you play music, you want to try to figure out what you yourself can do outside of a band. Most guys that we all enjoy listening to who are in a band, wind up having side projects. Ten years ago, my dad was looking at longevity and life. He helped us come out of it and say, “If something happens to my voice or if something happens to me, I wouldn’t want you guys to just start out cold and have a hard go at it.” So we were able to do both. Because of that, it just couldn’t be the same band without my dad. Because I’m a mandolin player, I love David Grisman’s approach because he was always stretching out. Sam Bush, always stretched out. These guys are also my heroes, so they would do a lot of improv and that’s something we don’t do a whole lot in my dad’s band. We have in the last two years, but anyhow, it was an enabler for us to sing some songs and find songs and do things that influenced me. I was a young kid and I went to quite a few Grateful Dead shows and I’ll always like their songs. We wound up doing a thing called The Grateful Ball where we could play our set and play a set of their music. That’s fun. It’s already been done, they did it, don’t get me wrong.
With different players it’s always going to be different music.
It is. I don’t know what happened, but last year we got a Grammy. We finally put out a record and we got a Grammy for it. It’s funny how life is. But that’s basically it with the Travelin’ McCourys and we really seem to be building pretty good right now.
Can you share any Travelin’ McCoury plans on the horizon with us?
We’re going to tour some with Yonder Mountain the first half of the year. We’re going on tour with Sam Bush too. Things are always changing; I don’t know what’s going to happen in the second part of the year. Right now I’m thinking, “Wow, I can finally relax after Saturday night because we’ve had a hell of a year.”