~ Hall of ~
By Frank Overstreet
How could you design the perfect Bluegrass musician? Complex decisions as to exactly what talents should be included would have to be made based on artists like Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and all of the pioneers of the music. Finding the most perfect individual in today’s prominent Bluegrass artists would be very easy. You only have to look as far as Del McCoury, to find the high, lonesome, bluesy sound and drive that embodies all of the components of Bluegrass.
He was born Delano Floyd McCoury in Bakersville, North Carolina on February 1, 1939, to Grover C. and Hazel McCoury. The family moved to York, Pennsylvania two years later, where Del was exposed to much music. His mother played guitar, organ, and harmonica, and many members of the Family played music in some way. Del’s older brother, G. C., played guitar and was a big fan of the Grand Ole Opry, forcing Del to stay up late with him each Saturday night listening to the radio. When G. C. bought a 78RPM record of Flatt and Scruggs’ “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” Earl’s banjo caught the ear of Del. His father took a Vega banjo in payment of a debt, although he told Del the banjo was only borrowed. Del taught himself to play by listening to records, mainly Flatt and Scruggs, and would call his younger brother Jerry, to listen to his latest accomplishments.
When Del finished High School, he purchased a new Gibson banjo. In 1957 he met Keith Daniels, who was playing fiddle with the Stevens Brothers. Keith encouraged Del to take his banjo and “set in” with the group, a pattern that continued until Del became the group’s banjo player and started doing some singing. One year later, Keith decided to split off and form the Blue Ridge Ramblers, taking Del with him to play banjo and sing tenor. Under Keith’s leadership, the group became one of the busiest bands in the area, playing in four states and on the “New Dominion Barn Dance” in Richmond, Virginia. The group recorded an album for Empire Records in 1962, shortly before Del was drafted into the Army.
Del received a medical discharge from military service after a few months, and when he returned home, he found that Keith had disbanded the group, and was no longer involved in music. Del went to the Baltimore area and joined the Franklin County Boys, playing guitar for about two months. He then joined future Clinch Mountain Boy Jack Cooke’s Virginia Playboys, playing banjo, with fourteen year old Jerry McCoury on bass.
Del told how he came to join Bill Monroe in an interview on July 4, 1992:
I did not know Bill at the time, but he came through Baltimore, Maryland, and stopped at the club where I was playing banjo with Jack Cooke. He only had Bessie Lee Mauldin and Kenny Baker with him, and he wanted Jack to go with him and play a show at New York University. Jack said, ‘yeah, I’ll go,’ so he got a band to take our place at the club. Jack asked Bill if he needed a banjo picker, and he said yes, so I went along and played the banjo. After that show, Bill offered me a job playing banjo, but I was young, and didn’t know if I could cut it, you know, I was just afraid. Everything was working good with Jack Cooke, so I thought about it for about a month, and finally decided I would go to Nashville and try it. A friend of mine, Bobby Diamond, had encouraged me to go, and if I remember correctly, he took me down there. I had called Bill, and he told me to go to a room in the Clarkston Hotel. I checked in, and I guess it was the next day, he called and said, come down to the Restaurant. When I came down, there was another boy there in the lobby with Bill, and we went in to eat. I seen that he was going to audition two banjo players, because the other guy was Bill Keith, and I was really scared then. When we got done eating, Bill said, we’ll go up in the National Life and Accident insurance Company building, that was just next door, and that’s where we auditioned. When we got there, Bill told me he wanted me to audition on guitar, and Bill Keith on banjo. I thought, man, this is kind of funny, because I hadn’t played guitar very much before. I played Monroe’s guitar, and he said, well, I’m going to try both of you. I’m going to get Keith in the Union today or tomorrow, so he can do this recording session with me. He tried me out for two weeks, and then got me in the Union.
William Bradford Keith, who was called “Brad” when he was a Blue Grass Boy, recorded four instrumentals with Bill Monroe on March 20, 1963. They included his revolutionary chromatic version of “Devil’s Dream.”
Del played with Bill Monroe about one year, recording three songs on January 28,1964. “One of God’s Sheep” was released on (Decca DL4537) I’ll Meet You in Church Sunday Morning, and “Roll On Buddy Roll On,” appeared on (Decca DL 4896) Blue Grass Time. “Legend of the Blue Ridge Mountains” was released only on the Japanese MCA album (VIM-4070) Bill Monroe Singles Collection, Vol. 3 (1959-1966) and German Bear Family boxed Bill Monroe CD set (BCD 15 529), Bluegrass: 1959-1969. Neil Rosenberg called “Roll On Buddy, Roll On” “one of the all-time classic bluegrass duets” in the notes to Bluegrass: 1959-1969. Del would have been involved in the recording session on January 27, 1964, but he and Billy Baker, who was playing fiddle for Monroe, were not informed that a session was scheduled, and went to Knoxville, Tennessee and played on the Cas Walker show. Joe Stuart played guitar and Benny Williams, fiddle, on that session.
Del left Monroe in early 1964, and went to California with Billy Baker, where they joined The Golden State Boys for about two months, with Del playing banjo. They formed their own group, The Shady Valley Boys, and moved back East in June, 1964, under that name and as Billy Baker they recorded several songs released on the famed various artists collection, the four LP Rebel Box. The band at that time included: Billy, fiddle; Del, guitar; Bill Keith, banjo; and Jerry McCoury, bass.
Del put together a group that played in bars and various places in Pennsylvania. This eventually became The Dixie Pals, a suggestion from Bobby Diamond, who was playing fiddle with Del at the time. The first recordings under the name Del McCoury and the Dixie Pals were for Arhoolie Records on December 9 and 10,1967, with Del, guitar; Bill Emerson, banjo; Wayne Yates, mandolin; Billy Baker, fiddle; and Tommy Neal or Dewey Renfro on bass. These sessions appeared on CD in 1992 as (Arhoolie CD 5006) I Wonder Where You Are Tonight.
During his career that has spanned more than thirty four years, Del has recorded for Renovah, Leather, Rebel, and now Rounder Records. One of the finest Bluegrass albums ever recorded was (Rounder 0230) The McCoury Brothers, released in 1987. Jerry’s lead and Del’s tenor has that great blend of family voices that make one of the best duets since the days of The Louvin Brothers.
Throughout his career, Del has always stressed that “drive” and “playing on top of the beat,” are two very important parts of his music. Possessed of a very emotional voice, he projects his feelings to the listener, whether on stage or recorded. He is such a capable musician, he could walk on to the stage with just his guitar, and totally entertain any audience. The valuable lessons he has learned in the Bluegrass Music business, have provided him with good taste when it comes to choosing members of The Del McCoury Band, the name he has used since 1989.
The accomplishments of Del McCoury have been many. One of those is seeing his two sons grow up and join their father in music. The youngest son of Del and his wife Jean, is Robbie, who started playing bass in 1987 and moved to banjo the next year. The eldest son, Ronnie, has been playing mandolin and singing tenor and occasional lead with his father since 1980. In 1993 Ronnie won Mandolin Player of the Year at the IBMA awards.
There have been ups and downs in Del’s distinguished musical career. It is often said that the down times create that inner hunger that impels a person to work even harder at their chosen way of life. Del’s willingness to stay with the music that he fell in love with at a very young age, has stood him well through the years. The 1990 release of (Rounder 0245 ) Don’t Stop The Music finally earned Del long overdue popularity. The members of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) voted Del “Male Vocalist of the Year” in 1990, 1991, and 1992.
Honors for Bluegrass musicians are often slow in coming but Delano Floyd “Del” McCoury’s induction into SPBGMA’s Preservation Hall of Greats in 1989 was most richly deserved and earned through his performances of some wonderful Bluegrass Music.