Once upon a time, say, the afternoon of Sept. 16, 1946, a genre was born. In Columbia's Chicago studios, Bill Monroe led Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise and Howard Watts through eight numbers, including "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and "Mansions for Me." With seeming (if not actual) ex nihilo authority, bluegrass made its first gigantic leap into life. Call it the Big Mon theory.
Del McCoury wasn't there, but you wouldn't know from his voice. It's a voice of awesome natural gifts but also of intense mentoring under the music of William Smith Monroe. McCoury has said that seeing Monroe for the first time in the '50s "was the most exciting thing I'd ever seen ... I knew right then that was what I had to do." He adopted the altitudinal technique, then introduced a style of phrasing so muscular and sly its effects can be as comic as they are sorrowful, the flex and whirl in the lower registers growing more pronounced as McCoury has matured. Now, nobody sings like Del.
Born in Bakersville, N.C., in 1939, Delano Floyd McCoury grew up and lived most of his adult life (when not on the road) in rural Pennsylvania. McCoury had started out on banjo, playing the local bars and touring a bit with the Blue Ridge Ramblers and the Virginia Mountain Boys. Then he got the break, an audition for Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. True to his MacArthurian will, Monroe told McCoury to hang up his banjo: From that time forward, he would handle guitar and lead vocals.
McCoury barely lasted a year with the Bluegrass Boys, but it was enough time to mark him forever with Monroe's singular blues. Since then, he's notched every bluegrass award there is to notch and come to epitomize (along with Ralph Stanley and Jimmy Martin) "the high lonesome sound," or the spirit of classic bluegrass. His recorded output is vast, but any short list of essential recordings best includes 1972's High on a Mountain (Rounder), recorded with the Dixie Pals; and what is surely the most mesmerizing body of work (all on Rounder) of any bluegrasser in the '90s: 1993's Deeper Shade of Blue, 1995's one-off album with younger brother Jerry, The McCoury Brothers; 1996's The Cold Hard Facts; and what Steve Earle calls one of the "very best bluegrass recordings ever made," 1992's Blue Side of Town. That album includes McCoury's signature song: Ola Belle Reed's "High on a Mountain." Everything you need to know about the man is contained in those two minutes and 50 seconds of unadulterated, soul-scorching soul.
Though the phrase seems ludicrous when applied to a musician of McCoury's stature, his breakthrough album was, in a sense, Cold Hard Facts, notable, on the one hand, for the one-two money punch of Robert Cray's "Smoking Gun" and Tom Petty's "Love Is a Long Road"; and on the other hand, for the undeniable emergence of a truly great American band. The current lineup has been in place since 1992: McCoury (guitar and lead vocals); sons Ronnie (mandolin, lead vocals) and Rob (banjo), Mike Bub (bass) and the newest, youngest member, Jason Carter (fiddle). Together they have widened the bluegrass audience as much as any anyone (excepting Alison Krauss and maybe Jerry Garcia), flourishing in an intensely competitive, often hardscrabble business.
Last year's tour with Steve Earle found the McCoury Band barnstorming clubs and playing for audiences as likely to attend a Trekkie convention as shell out for a bluegrass concert. Performing virtually the whole of The Mountain -- Earle's first bluegrass album and a showcase for the McCoury Band's exhilarating, flexible ensemble playing -- the six men rubbed lapels around a single mike, performing that graceful dodge-and-duck ballet, reinterpreting Earle classics, and rocking hard -- to quote Earle -- as all fuck.
And that, ultimately, put an end to the collaboration. Not the rocking -- McCoury could school Earle there -- but the cursing. For all his willingness to take chances, all his raw, bluesy tone, McCoury is a consummate professional. He understands his core audience, has built decades of musical relationships, and isn't about to compromise any of it for the blue streaks of all the genius country songwriters on the planet -- of which Earle is surely one. One suspects, too, that Earle's tendency to turn the stage into a political soapbox didn't wash with McCoury. Regardless, that 1999 tour was a revelation -- by the end of the night, the encore clamor was as focused on McCoury as on the writer of "Copperhead Road."
Few genres have accrued a more persistently suspect set of modifiers than bluegrass, words like "traditional," "mountain" and "folk." There's tradition, mountains and folk in McCoury's music but, more clearly, a virtuoso's palette, an equal, fiery love of a rock & roll classic ("That's All Right Mama"), a weepy country hit ("What Made Milwaukee Famous Has Made a Loser Out of Me,"), a goof-off ("Nashville Cats"), a singer/songwriter ballad (David Olney's "Queen Anne's Lace"), a bit of amen-cornerism (Monroe's "Get Down on Your Knees and Pray") and, above all, straight-up honky-tonk numbers, each selected with a jeweler's discriminating eye, each transformed into high bluegrass drama. All are bound together before that single mike by a band so taut and effortless, and a voice -- a spike-driver's moan, a fool's bitter tears, a man's boundless joy -- in short, a voice of such character it can be terrifying to hear.
Enough. If you're going, you know it -- the show has been sold out for weeks -- and there's nothing more to add. Giants, you see, still walk among us.
The Del McCoury Band performs a sold-out show at the Sheldon Concert Hall on Saturday, Feb. 19.