The high tenor of Del McCoury is a powerful sound. The sun had already set at the Shakori Hills festival grounds when Mr. McCoury, his sons Rob McCoury on banjo and Ronnie McCoury playing mandolin walked on stage. Completing the quintet is Jason Carter on fiddle and Alan Bartram with his upright bass. The band in pressed suits and toothy smiles delved into the Richard Thompson penned “Dry My Tears and Move On.” Out on a freshly mowed meadow were unmasked patrons sitting on collapsible chairs inside chalked off pods in groups of their own choosing. Many of whom were experiencing their first in-person concert since Covid-19 dismantled the live music industry and most everything else. For Mr. McCoury and his band, they sounded sharp and polished, perhaps from playing the Grand Ole Opry the night before.
Earlier in the afternoon Dom Flemons who goes by the moniker The American Songster greeted the seated. He came out for his opening set dressed in autumnal tones, suspenders and a pork pie hat. His solo set included Smithsonian quality instruments like the rhythm bones for percussion which are worn on the fingers, banjos of different sizes with one dated to the early 1900s, the quills (a variety of pan flute) that is held on a device much like a harmonica holder and an acoustic guitar. The latter of which was played on an instrumental version of “Freight Train” by local musician the late, great Elizabeth Cotten of Carrboro, NC. He sang songs of New Orleans, hot chicken, and the blues. It was old time music personified and his online content contains a t-shirt depicting himself as a cartoon, picking a banjo drawn by none other by R. Crumb.
Now Del McCoury is as historic as he is historian. Throughout the course of his twenty-four- song set Mr. McCoury told stories about recently retired disk jockey, Nashville’s Eddie Stubbs, banjo innovator Earl Scruggs, gospel composer Albert Brumley, and Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie. These all being first-hand accounts with the antidotes weaving in and out of the song selection (like the speedy ‘Cornbread and Creek Water’ that was developed from unrecorded Woody Guthrie writings). This renders his asides and jovial spirit as important to the show as the banjo or guitar. Del accomplishes all this with a warm smile and often a wink.
For a band that pulls from multiple decades of material the absence of a defined setlist is a daring choice. The first third of the single set is a spotlight on each musician where Del will introduce each player and step back to let everyone shine. Take the mandolin and banjo driven instrumental “Grass Valley.” It’s rhythmic, freight train fast and where the musicologist Alan Lomax quote, “Bluegrass is folk music in overdrive,” seems apropos. Equally speedy with dizzying fiddle patterns was an instrumental from the 2014 Rob McCoury album Five String Flame Thrower that followed.
The second portion of the set gets opened to requests. One such number was the murder ballad “Rain and Snow.” A tale of a hardworking husband who’s been treated poorly by his wife ultimately resulting in her demise, of course we’re only hearing his side of the story. First recorded in 1971 on the Livin’ On The Mountain album this is the song where Del turns snow into a 7-syllable word.
Bluegrass isn’t where you go for visual excitement. Tonight, the stage craft consisted of a couple wooden stools that were used to hold bottled water, the lights were provided by the venue none of which strobed or flashed, and the band forgoes monitors. One live bluegrass centric quirk that can be interesting to look for and which this group are masters of is sharing the vocal mic. It can be a quick two-step or at it’s best a bit of a waltz where Del will belt out the first verse and the band will lean in for the chorus while Del leans out. In the midst of banjo breakdowns and bass slaps it’s amazing no one bumps into one another, at least no one did tonight.
The set winds down with some gospel numbers, notably “Get Down on Your Knees and Pray” which borders on hypnotic from to the band going in a round of instructing the listener to “get down, get down, get down, get down on your knees and pray,” before closing their set with the staple “Vincent Black Lightning” with accompanying origin story. One pre-encore interaction has Del saying to the crowd “Oh, we’re running short on time here” then someone from a socially distanced pod replies, “WE NEED MORE TIME!”, then Del ends the back and forth while tuning his guitar with a chuckle, stating “I do too.”
At a time where this plague is seemingly (domestically) in the rear view, in a year where Bob Dylan turns 80 and Ann Roth wins her 2nd Academy Award for costume design at age 89, why not celebrate Mr. Del McCoury, bluegrass legend aged 82, right now? Our lives are enriched with live music and live music is enriched by Del McCoury.