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At 74, Del McCoury still going strong

Courtesy photo
Del McCoury performs on "Mountain Stage" Sunday. (Photo by Forrest L. Smith, III.)

WANT TO GO?

"Mountain Stage" with the Del McCoury Band, The Traveling McCourys with special guest Keller Williams, Susan Werner, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, and Mandolin Orange

WHERE: Culture Center theater

WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday

TICKETS: Advance tickets $15. At the door $25.

INFO: 800-594-TIXX or www.mountainstage.org _____

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Del McCoury has a lot of love for the city of Baltimore. It's where the bluegrass great got his start and where McCoury first met bluegrass legend Bill Monroe.

McCoury, who performs Sunday on "Mountain Stage," said he first started playing in Baltimore with one of Monroe's former bandmates,

"There was this guy named Jack Cook, who was an ex-bluegrass boy," McCoury said. "He'd quit Bill and was playing in Baltimore, in a little club. He had his own band.

"I came along, see -- and I was a banjo player then."

McCoury joined Cook's band and was there the night Monroe came into the club, looking to bring Cook with him for a show in New York. Cook suggested they could bring McCoury along.

In New York, McCoury said, he expected the three of them would rehearse some before the show, but they never did. Instead, they tuned up and walked out on the stage to play.

McCoury didn't actually know all of the songs Monroe played.

"It was nerve-wracking," he said, "but I was confident in myself and what I could do."

And besides, he was a very good banjo player.

Monroe offered McCoury a job. The problem was, Monroe didn't exactly need a banjo player. He needed someone to play guitar and sing.

"He told me, 'You'll like the guitar better,'" McCoury said. "I didn't think so, but I didn't tell him that."

McCoury took to playing guitar.

"And I never went back to seriously playing banjo," he said, "and I'm good."

McCoury added that he'd never have given up the banjo for anyone -- except Bill Monroe --but it largely worked out for him. Over 50 years, McCoury has carved one of the most enduring and influential careers in bluegrass music.

It all began in Baltimore, and McCoury's latest record, "The Streets of Baltimore," is a nod to that city and all that it gave him.

"It's funny," he said. "I had another album lined up, but I just felt like I needed to make this record. I got my start in Baltimore when I was living in Yorktown, Pennsylvania. I played it before I met Bill Monroe. I played it a lot with Bill Monroe, and then I played it a lot after I quit, got married and moved to California. I played it a lot when I moved back."

McCoury marvels at how the music has grown and changed over the years. A lot of country performers started out in bluegrass, he remembered, adding with a laugh, "then went into country, where they can make a lot of money."

Lately, pop musicians have been incorporating bluegrass instruments into their acts. McCoury has seen a lot of guys in jam bands and rock bands add banjos or mandolins to what they do.

"And you know what? It's OK with me," he said. "I don't see myself doing it, but a lot of those bands are great at it."

Some of it is a little watered down, he thinks, but that's OK, too.

McCoury has played with or shared the stage with lots of these Americana, pop and jam bands that flirt with bluegrass -- everybody from Phish to Steve Earle. He has a hard time keeping track of everybody.

Recently, he and the band were booked to play a show in Oklahoma. They went on stage at 11 at night and, while they were going through their set, they noticed a young musician watching in the wings.

Between songs, his manager called them over and said, "Hey, he'd like to play with you guys."

"He was the lead singer in that band from England," he said, trying to remember. "The singer from the Mumford Boys was standing there."

Actually, Marcus Mumford, of Mumford and Sons, one of the hottest bands in the world at the moment.

Mumford and McCoury talked for a minute, trying to find something to play.

McCoury said, "We hadn't rehearsed anything, you know?"

But they came up with the tune, "Angel Band," an old Gospel tune.

McCoury said it was good time, but he usually has a good time playing with whoever, and he plays as much as he likes.

At 74, he could slow down, but McCoury said he still enjoys performing and trying new things. Lately, he's been out on the road with mandolin player and "newgrass" innovator Sam Bush.

Originally, the two of them were going to go out and play a series of shows with Bush on mandolin and McCoury on guitar. Bush, McCoury said, talked him into doing the shows with Bush on fiddle and McCoury on banjo.

It turned out he's still pretty good. Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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