With a discography as long, deep and wide-ranging as Del McCoury’s, it can be hard to even know where to start. Well, folks, we’re here to help with a “Del 101” primer of the modern era’s ultimate bluegrass star through the decades of his career. By no means does this overview cover everything you should be listening to from his orbit. But here’s where to start if you don’t already know his body of work.
1940s and ’50s
Named after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Delano Floyd McCoury was born Feb. 1, 1939, in York, Pa. For many years, his birthplace was cited as Bakersville, North Carolina (even his online entry in IBMA’s Hall of Fame says that), but he’s a Pennsylvania native.
One of six kids, Del grew up on a farm. Music entered the picture through the radio airwaves, and what first fired his imagination was hearing Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. Inspired by Earl Scruggs’ lightning-fast “fancy banjo,” young Del took up the instrument. That was his instrument when he started playing in a series of bluegrass bands after high school, Stevens Brothers and Keith Daniels & the Blue Ridge Ramblers among them, while working day jobs in logging and construction.
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After he was drafted into the military and medically discharged, McCoury was working and playing in Baltimore, where one of his frequent picking partners was former Blue Grass Boys bassist Jack Cooke. That connection led to McCoury joining the Blue Grass Boys himself in 1963 – initially as banjo player, but then as lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist when Monroe simultaneously hired Bill Keith. McCoury would spend a year playing with Monroe, during which time he played the Grand Ole Opry for the first time.
By mid-decade, McCoury was back in Pennsylvania, married to his wife Jean and raising a family. The year 1968 brought his first album under his own name, Del McCoury Sings Bluegrass, recorded with a couple of his fellow Monroe alumni and released on Arhoolie Records. The album is more than solid, even if it shows he hadn’t quite found his own voice just yet, but McCoury’s takes on the bluegrass standards “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” and “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” are first-rate. The cover shows McCoury with a cocky grin and trademark pompadour already in place.
“He always had the pompadour going back to the late ’60s,” says Del’s daughter Rhonda. “There was always a little bit of pompadour even when he’d grease his hair back, so I guess that’s just the way Dad’s hair has always been. People ask, ‘How does it do that?’ Well, it just does. It’s trained that way!”
By the dawn of the 1970s, McCoury had assembled what would be his backup group for the next two decades – Del McCoury & the Dixie Pals, featuring his brother Jerry McCoury on bass. Even though he was still on the day-job grind and had yet to take the plunge into music full-time, he started making in-roads overseas with tours of Canada and Japan. The latter tour yielded a fine in-concert album, 1980’s Live in Japan.
It was also with the Dixie Pals that McCoury made his first truly great album. Released in 1973 on the Rounder Records label, High on a Mountain remains a start-to-finish tour de force. Especially great is the title track, penned by the legendary old-time folkie Ola Belle Reed.
This particular decade was all about family coming together, when McCoury’s sons joined his band. Ronnie McCoury was all of 14 years old when he signed on as his dad’s mandolinist in 1981, and younger brother Robbie was just 16 when he became Del’s banjo player in 1987. Both quickly became among the most acclaimed virtuoso players in bluegrass.
Following a very fine album with his brother Jerry, 1987’s The McCoury Brothers, Del made one last solo album — 1988’s Don’t Stop the Music, the place to start with for this era of Del. He’s never sounded more forlorn than on this album’s “Knee Deep in the Blues.” But on a more positive note, by the end of the ’80s, the Dixie Pals had rebranded as Del McCoury Band as they went roaring into the ’90s.
The ’90s were when Del McCoury Band ascended to the top rank of bluegrass acts, especially after their relocation to Nashville. McCoury and band started winning IBMA Awards in bushels, eventually amassing 31 starting with 1990’s Male Vocalist of the Year (an award he’s won four times). It’s hard to go wrong with pretty much any 1990s-vintage McCoury album, especially 1992’s Blue Side of Town – featuring the Steve Earle-penned “If You Need a Fool,” a song Phish has been known to cover. Just as strong is the 1993 follow-up A Deeper Shade of Blue, featuring a stellar take on the Jerry Lee Lewis standard “What Made Milwaukee Famous.” It earned the first of McCoury’s 14 Grammy nominations.
Also Grammy-nominated was The Mountain, a 1999 collaboration with Earle, who wrote in the album’s liner notes that he “wanted to write just one song that would be performed by at least one band at every bluegrass festival in the world long after I have followed Mr. Bill (Monroe) out of this world.” The title track might be it.
For long stretches, Del McCoury Band had IBMA’s prestigious Entertainer of the Year award locked down, winning it every year from 1998 through 2002 and nine times overall. McCoury also joined the Grand Ole Opry as a member in 2003 and won his first of two Grammys with 2005’s The Company We Keep. Ever modest, McCoury kicked that album off with “Nothin’ Special.”
At the end of the decade, McCoury’s backup band also began performing on their own without Del as the Travelin’ McCourys, and the long-running annual get-together DelFest began. (The 15th annual DelFest will happen May 25-28, 2023, in Cumberland, Maryland.) Having played bluegrass festivals all his life, Del had some thoughts about making his the best it could be.
“When we started talking about doing a festival, he looked back at how many different places he’d played that just didn’t do it right,” says his daughter Rhonda. “Like places that didn’t seem to care about artists having to go through a mud pit to get to a stage, and he’s always dressed for a show. He feels like if he can take care of things, everyone else should too.”
In recent decades, honors for McCoury have continued with a 2010 NEA National Heritage Fellowship, a 2011 induction into the IBMA Hall of Fame and another Grammy Award, for 2013’s nostalgic The Streets of Baltimore. The Del McCoury Band’s newest album, Almost Proud, will compete for Best Bluegrass Album in February 2023. That’s indicative of the esteem McCoury’s peers hold him in. He and his band have collaborated on-record and onstage with a long list of artists, from “Dawg music” mandolinist David Grisman to New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band on 2011’s American Legacies.
Another unlikely yet brilliant collaboration involved the anthemic U2 song “Pride (In the Name of Love),” which Dierks Bentley covered on his 2010 album Up on the Ridge. At the suggestion of producer Jon Randall, Bentley enlisted McCoury to sing the high part on the chorus.
“That part’s so high and the only person who can sing that high lonesome note is Del,” says Bentley. “We were working on that note, getting up there, and I called Ronnie. ‘Work him hard,’ he said, ‘he’ll get it! He’s stronger the longer he goes.’ That’s opposite of most people, but it’s true for him. Sure enough, he just got better and better. Once he found it, there was so much power. When he came onstage unannounced at Telluride in 2019 and did that one with me, it was about the biggest highlight of my life.”