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All In the Family

Del McCoury Band gets boost from younger generations in band and out

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For the last 47 years, Del McCoury's been on the road, singing high and lonesome, no matter the circumstances. But some nights, things are too much for even this old pro. "My dad, he's got something," says Ronnie McCoury, explaining why Del will do the show tonight but isn't feeling up to an interview. "The hardest thing for him to do is talk."

Del McCoury doesn't really need to talk anyway — his record speaks for itself. At 24, he joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys as guitarist and singer, but left after a year to raise a family in Pennsylvania. McCoury worked in a sawmill by day, spending the next two decades on the road playing festivals on weekends, first as Del's Dixie Pals and finally as The Del McCoury Band when son Ronnie joined at age 14 in 1981, Since that time, the band has won 40 International Bluegrass Music Association awards, including eight Entertainer of the Year wins for Del. Son Ronnie has taken home eight IBMA Best Mandolin player awards, and bassist Mike Bub (four IBMA awards) and fiddler Jason Carter (three IBMA awards) haven't fared badly either. Their last release, 03's It's Just the Night, was nominated for a Grammy.

For his part, Ronnie was more interested in playing sports than bluegrass at first, but after being introduced to Bill Monroe by his dad at a Lincoln Center gig where Monroe let young McCoury play his mandolin, he was impressed enough to practice enough to become a full fledged band member. But Ronnie says he never felt pressured to join, or to play. "Dad, he's just never been the type of guy to put his thumb on you and keep you down, or tell you what to do. My brother (banjoist Rob, who came aboard in '88) and myself, we have just the most respect for my dad.

McCoury earns that respect by respecting his son's input. Ronnie co-produced 1999's The Mountain with Steve Earle, and has been sole producer of the band's last two albums. He's also been responsible for bringing to his dad's attention songs not usually heard in bluegrass. Over the years, McCoury has recorded The Lovin' Spoonful's "Nashville Cats," Tom Petty's "Love Is A Long Hard Road," and Robert's Cray's "Smokin Gun," as well as works by Richard Thompson and Delbert McClinton. "I started with that several years ago and brought the songs to him and let him hear them, and if he thought he could do 'em, and if he liked it, he did it," Ronnie says.

Other younger musicians liked what they heard McCoury doing as well. As a result, the Del McCoury Band may be the only traditional bluegrass band selling tie dyed T-shirts with their logo on them. But that's not a new wrinkle. "It started about the mid 90s with a band called Phish," Ronnie laughs. "They started doing one of my dad's songs ("Beauty Of My Dreams" from 92's Blue Side of Town) on their show, and it opened up a whole other audience. Since then, we've played with them at their festival and they came out to ours." McCoury's band has played with other jammers including the String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon, and Yonder Mountain String Band. Their appearance at 02's Bonnarroo festival and the subsequent live recording also helped win them new young fans, though the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia had been a fan as early as the mid-60s, too.

Despite his willingness to experiment with the genre, McCoury has remained a traditional bluegrass musician and has no plans to change. You'll not be seeing electricity and drums in this band. "Not with dad," Ronnie affirms. "I've got a pickup on my mandolin. I've played with quite a few bands plugged in — it's something that I've always wanted to at least try. But we would never do that. It's just two microphones, real simple."

The band's schedule of up to 160 dates a year keeps McCoury too busy for side projects. "That day's coming where I'll be doing it," Ronnie says, "and dad, he's real open to everything, and he knows that the day is gonna come when we're gonna have to do it ourselves." Ronnie had a record out a couple of years back and toured briefly to support it.

But the elder McCoury has no plans to retire. A new record is due out in May, and Del has started co-writing songs for the first time, one with Durham native Don Schlitz, author of Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler," and some with a bunch of unknowns. "We get a lot of songs from people all over the country. They either lay 'em on us at a gig, or mail 'em to us through the website or through friends — a lot of writers I don't think anybody knows."

Their new one, like the last, will be out on their own label, McCoury Records. After years of working with Rounder, the band switched to Ricky Skaggs' Ceili Music, releasing 99's The Family and 2000's Del And The Boys. Before Rebel, the McCourys decided it was time to change to their own label. "We sat down and talked to about nine or 10 companies, finally decided to do it ourselves," Ronnie says. "My dad keeps the masters so they come down to us in the future. It just made sense, financially."

Whatever the formula, it's working.

"We're lucky because it keeps growing," Ronnie says of the fanbase his family has created. "It's pretty amazing. I remember the days when we didn't play to 100 people and didn't get out too far from where we're based, and now it's everywhere."

The Del McCoury Band plays the Neighborhood Theatre Friday at 8pm. Tickets are $30.

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