Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Brett Allen
The day after we recorded The Del McCoury Band at John Prine's Butcher Shop studio in Nashville, Tennessee, this past January, we had lunch at a small diner on the eastern side of the city, near another studio that we were using as Prine was filming a part of a documentary at his and it was unavailable. The dining party included Mark Howard and his wife, the great Dave Ferguson (Johnny Cash's longtime and trusty engineer) and Ronnie McCoury, Del's well-coiffed son. The conversation meandered from a local who'd walked in, apparently stacked with a fresh breast augmentation to important things. Not too long before this trip to Nashville, Pete Seeger had celebrated his 90th birthday in New York City, with an impressive list of performers there to perform with and for Mr. Seeger - with Del McCoury being one of the invited attendees. He performed with Arlo Guthrie and others that night, but one of the truly significant parts to the evening was when Bruce Springsteen collared him later on in the back and told him how much he loved him. Even having only spent an hour with Mr. Del McCoury, the 71-year-old guitarist and singer from Bakersville, North Carolina, it's easy to picture how he would have reacted to such a compliment. He wouldn't have even needed to start smiling, for the one that he would have had on at this moment, would have been the same one that he wears as involuntarily as his skin or his shock of snow white hair. It would have just been there, and in that sweet, sweet, sweet higher-pitched voice of his, he would have graciously thanked the Boss and thrown the affection right back at him. There are so many reasons for someone like a Springsteen, or anyone for that matter, to find McCoury to be such a hero figure. He's been a model for bluegrass singers and pickers for the past 50 years playing the legendary songs of the genre and writing a huge helping of them too, assembling a killer band of players capable of pulling of the impossible harmonies and the lickety split runs on mandolins and guitars. It's a sight to behold when he and the boys - two of them his own blood - are in one room, grinning through a set, moving forward and backward toward microphones, setting and dictating the stereophonics of their music-making. Even in the studio, you feel like applauding when a song's been so artfully and expertly concluded - awed by the easy beauty exhibited right before your eyes and ears. Del McCoury, for 50 years has made feeling blue and missing his best girls from afar. He's done so, the way that all of the classic country and western/bluegrass writers and singers have done it - by making every character a victim and every character a hero. It includes the cheating hearts and the cheated hearts. It includes all of the women and all of the men. Even when the men haven't been the best or the women have coldly run off with another man, writing into the subtext is a second version of every story - a version that conquers the depths of the pain and heartache on both sides with humor, sadness and aplomb. Del McCoury seems as if he's a man who has never deserved any heartbreak or blues that he's felt. A man so able to smile big, with that silver twinkle to the corner of his shining eyes, can do no wrong, is what we want to believe. It's the reason that we feel his blues all the more. We feel it in the harmonies that he gives us - harmonies that have no business coming from a human mouth so without flaw. We feel it in his take on songs like Carl Smith's legendary "Are You Teasing Me?" riffing on the unbelievable nature of the beginnings of love - the caution exhibited by those feeling it - and the hunch that this is gonna be another girl to pack her bags and move out, given enough time. Del McCoury sings of these feelings like no other can.