Del McCoury Handpicked by Woody Guthrie’s Family to Finish Lost Songs
“My wife says, ‘You should get in the studio and record,’” says Del McCoury with a laugh, “‘You’re going to run out of time one of these days.’”
It’s the week before DelFest — McCoury’s eighth annual Memorial Day festival set for this weekend in Cumberland, Maryland — but the bluegrass legend sounds as relaxed as if he’s on an extended vacation. Clearly he’s as undaunted joking about his own mortality as he is about the idea of spending the holiday weekend performing in likely sweltering heat and humidity before capacity crowds on a stage just a stone’s throw from West Virginia.
“I never did mind the road,” says McCoury, who turned 76 in February. “The first time I knew about homesickness was when I was married and moved to California and my wife had never been away from home. I’d look at her and think, ‘What is wrong with that girl?’ And then I realized she was homesick. That’s why we only stayed out there six months. The road never did bother me. There’s just a certain routine that I’m used to.”
While many other musicians of his generation grouse about travel and the rigors of touring, McCoury — who is on the road full-time — always seems genuinely pleased to meet his fans. No paid meet-and-greets for McCoury, who is often in the DelFest crowd, chatting and posing for pictures.
“We want this to stay family-friendly,” says Ronnie McCoury, who joins his brother Robbie and other performers as instructors at the multi-day DelFest Academy the week prior to the festival. “We are guests in the town and we want to make sure everyone has a good experience.”
And family-friendly is just the McCoury way. Consider that in the early morning hours, after the late shows end, Del McCoury rides through the camping areas in a golf cart, making sure the festivalgoers are settled in. Newcomers to the festival, which is not solely bluegrass, are surprised that the headliner is so accessible.
It’s easy to hear McCoury squirm as he confirms his in-demand status and an abbreviated list of high-profile shout-outs, like Bruce Springsteen waving off McCoury’s introduction: “Hey, you don’t need to tell me who you are,” he said. “I’m a fan.” Or the time Dierks Bentley told an arena audience that he came close to abandoning music but continued thanks to Del’s inspiration. Even Phish’s Jon Fishman has said he first read about Del in a Rolling Stone article, in which Jerry Garcia was quoted as saying, “I’ve just been trying to sing like Del McCoury all my life.”
Nora Guthrie, daughter of iconic folksinger Woody Guthrie, is among the latest to publicly show her faith in McCoury. When she unearthed a treasure trove of unfinished Woody Guthrie songs, she asked the musician if he’d complete them.
“Those songs were written when Woody was coming out of Oklahoma, listening to the Carter Family and hillbilly music,” says Nora Guthrie of the lyrics McCoury set to music. “I can’t possibly explain to a 30-year-old what that was like. So I thought, ‘Who don’t I have to explain this to?’ The answer was Del. That is just one of the many, many reasons I chose him. His style of playing, his voice, his band — there are so many similarities between Del and my dad.”
The as-yet untitled album, which contains songs Guthrie originally wrote between 1935 and 1949, doesn’t have a release date, but McCoury has already been performing some of the tracks live. Along with the customary audience requests for songs that span his 50-plus years career.
Born in York, Pennsylvania, McCoury developed his love for bluegrass after hearing Earl Scruggs’ banjo-playing on Fifties’ radio. Soon he was picking the banjo around the Baltimore-D.C. bar scene. It wasn’t long until Bill Monroe hired McCoury to join the legendary Blue Grass Boys, moving him from banjo to guitar and making him lead singer.
Although McCoury was primed to break out as a major bluegrass star, he returned to Pennsylvania to work as a logger to better support his growing family, playing music on the weekends with his band the Dixie Pals. When young sons Ronnie and Robbie joined the band, he relocated to Nashville to give the boys a better shot at more recognition.
It worked. In 2006, the McCourys won their first Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album for The Company We Keep, a category they’d win yet again in 2014 for The Streets of Baltimore.
“Very few people in the world will understand what it is to stand on a stage with your father when winning a Grammy,” says Ronnie McCoury. “It is the best feeling in the world. But I feel like that every night we are out there playing.”
Not that the elder McCoury will brag about any of this. Instead, he credits his fans with the group’s success.
“Well, you know, I guess we have got a lot of fans that we made back in the Sixties,” he says. “We also always had a lot of young folks as fans. We are just very fortunate that they like us and don’t forget us.”
And come see them each year at DelFest, along with the other bluegrass-leaning bands on the bill. This year’s lineup includes Old Crow Medicine Show, Jason Isbell, Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, Shovels & Rope, Yonder Mountain String Band’s Jeff Austin and his band, Nicki Bluhm & the Gamblers, Nora Jane Struthers, the Gibson Brothers and Trampled by Turtles.
“We don’t sit down and strategize,” says Ronnie McCoury of the sometimes eclectic line-ups. “We think about who we like and invite them. It comes out to be a nice mix.”
Del McCoury remembers the first time he and his sons heard the buzzed-about Trampled by Turtles. “Those guys tickled me to death. They play so fast, you can’t tap your foot to it,” he says. “Anyway, they are really big now.”
Still, even Trampled by Turtles would likely admit they have miles to go before they reach Del Status.
“I brag on him a lot. He never will,” says Ronnie McCoury about his father. “You think of everyone in the world who appreciates and loves Woody Guthrie music. There are some major rock stars like Bruce Springsteen who would love to [set Guthrie’s words to music]. But [Nora] chose my dad. I’ve always known what a great musician my dad is. Now the world will know it.”