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Metro Pulse That High Lonesome Sound

'Grass legend Del McCoury marries his skill with rocker Steve Earle's soul.

By Joe Tarr

MARCH 15, 1999:  Del McCoury never wanted much.

When McCoury starting playing bluegrass back in the late '50s, nothing was about all he could expect. No one ever got rich playing this music. And yet, when McCoury takes the stage with Steve Earle at the Tennessee Theatre Friday, he will come about as far as anybody has playing this music.

"I never was money oriented. I never thought about making money in the beginning. I just love this music so much, and love playing," McCoury says over the phone from his home outside of Nashville. "I just wanted to record and do shows. Without even thinking about it, sooner or later, things like that pay off."

Bluegrass is essentially hillbilly music, but it is a complicated, demanding form of it—difficult to play, and influenced as much by jazz and gospel as it is by the blues and old-time mountain ballads. More or less invented by Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys in the late '30s, the form has inspired mainstream artists like Earle, but has always remained on the fringes of popular music.

After 40 years of paying his dues and respects to the art form, McCoury now leads perhaps the premier bluegrass band in the world.

The New York Times wrote of a 1995 concert, "Del McCoury is singing in a mountain tenor so high, so blue, so lonesome that it seems he or the audience, could swoon for lack of oxygen. It's a midnight voice, a voice to make you hit the bottle one moment, then drop to your knees and pray the next."

The folk magazine Sing Out wrote, "Next to Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley...no one has kept the blue in bluegrass like Del McCoury. Reaching regions few others have scaled, McCoury's voice is the very embodiment of the 'high lonesome sound.'"

Despite his affinity for the blues, McCoury says he hasn't had a bad life. After playing in various bands in the late '50s and early '60s, McCoury landed a job with Monroe in 1963. It was a short stint, but led to him switching from banjo to guitar, and beginning to sing lead.

In 1966, McCoury put together his first band, Del McCoury and the Dixie Pals. Until the late '80s, he split his time between bluegrass gigs and his day job in Pennsylvania's timber industry. But he isn't bitter that success was so long in coming.

"I've never really had a tough life. When I was growing up, we had to work hard. But we never went hungry. We weren't rich, but we were a hard-working bunch. I never had it easy until now," McCoury says. "Even though I work the road really hard, it's still the easiest work I've ever done."

The payoff is sweetened by the fact that McCoury's sons—Ronnie on mandolin, and Rob on banjo—followed in their dad's footsteps. "Back in the '70s, I didn't even think about that then, because I'd be on the road playing, and working a day job. I never thought about them playing. I figured they'd try to play an instrument for a couple weeks and put it down, but they never did," McCoury says. "I turn around one day, there they are on stage with me. I'd have a man quit and the best person to take their place would be one of my sons."

The three formed the Del McCoury Band in the late '80s.

McCoury has that polite, easy-going demeanor you'd expect from an old-timer sitting on a storefront stoop in any small town. He's talkative, and full of stories, but struggles to elucidate what the music means to him—as if explaining it were impossible and the only way you could ever understand is to listen.

The McCourys have known Earle since the early '90s, and have worked with him in the past. They played on Earle's last album, El Corazon, and on the Earle-produced V-roys album, All About Town.

Earle has dabbled in bluegrass, but this year he released his first, full-fledged bluegrass album, The Mountain. McCoury says Earle fits in great with the band.

"He's a singer songwriter. He did depend on us for arranging. He kind of depend on Ronnie to do the instrumental backup. That way he didn't have to worry. All he had to do was sing his songs," McCoury says. "[Earle's] a great guitar player. It just works great with Steve. He knows his part even though he's not done that much bluegrass before."

What does McCoury think of Earle's songs? They nail the bluesy spirit of bluegrass, which is about everyday folks.

"[The songs] remind you of those people who had to work hard and didn't have nothing when they did work hard," McCoury says.

There's "Texas Eagle," Earle's reminiscence about his grandfather ("a railroad man") taking him to ride an old passenger rail, which was eventually sold to Mexico. Or "Harlan Man," about an East Kentucky coal miner.

And of course, a murder ballad—"Carrie Brown"—in which a young man is sentenced to death for killing a woman in a jealous rage.

"I like murder ballads, you know. It's true to life. Those things do happen, and I think they should be told," McCoury says. "A lot of the old mountain songs were that way—they have a lot of heartbreak in them and tragedy. Of course, I like happy songs too, but they don't affect me as much as a sad tale."

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