Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Ruined for Life

By Mark Jordan

OCTOBER 11, 1999:  In the liner notes to their stunning collaboration The Mountain, released earlier this year, Steve Earle called Del McCoury and his boys "the best bluegrass band working today." It was not idle flattery.

Featuring veteran guitarist Del on guitar, his sons Ronnie and Rob on mandolin and banjo, respectively, Jason Carter on fiddle, and Mike Bub on bass, this Nashville-based outfit stands tall in a field that includes such lofty artists as Ricky Skaggs, Allison Krauss, and Bela Fleck. At the International Bluegrass Music Awards, to be held October 21st in Lousiville, Kentucky, the McCoury Band and its most recent release, The Family, are nominated for a combined 11 awards. But even that is a matter of routine for the group. Del has won the IBMA's male vocalist award four times, Ronnie has five wins in the banjo category, and Robbie has been nominated every year since 1990.

Still most audiences not intimately acquainted with bluegrass know the band through their work with Earle. The two first teamed up in 1991, when the band cut a version of Earle's "If You Need A Fool." At the time Earle was spiraling into the morass of drugs and legal problems he wouldn't come out of until 1995. But at the request of the band's producer, Earle scribbled an extra verse of the song for McCoury to sing. It ended up being the last lines he would write for four years.

Fast forward to 1997, and a cleaned-up Earle was riding high with another critically lauded album, Train a Comin', under his belt, and his own label, E-Squared, up and running. Earle, a songwriter whose fascination with bluegrass dates back to a childhood visit to see Bill Monroe play at the Grand Ole Opry, recruited the McCoury Band to play a track on his new album, El Corazon. The success of that collaboration led directly to The Mountain.

The record is a powerful mix, featuring Earle's vivid, well-crafted songs with some of the McCoury Band's most impassioned backing. Alas, the teaming hasn't lasted. After a brief tour earlier this year, Earle and the McCoury Band parted; reportedly because, though the maverick Earle has cut out the booze and drugs, he still cusses too damn much for the straight-laced McCourys.

It's for the best, though. At this stage in his career, Del McCoury has to play second fiddle to no one. Born in North Carolina and raised in Pennsylvania, McCoury and his brother Jerry were raised on the their mother's "mountain blues" and the sounds of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Skruggs on the radio. After an apprenticeship playing in various groups in the Southeast, in 1963 McCoury began a stint with none other than Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. At the time he was playing banjo, but Monroe switched his new recruit to guitar and began to exploit his lovely high lonesome voice. McCoury left Monroe after a year, and in 1967 he formed his own band. His career has been on a steady track since.

And with the new fame brought about by the Earle collaborations and the recent Groovegrass project, which teamed the McCoury Band with Parliament-Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins, it's a career that just now seems to be picking up momentum. And the rising status of Rob and Ronnie ensures a McCoury legacy that will last a long time. (In 1995, Rob and Ronnie teamed up on their own CD, just as Del and his brother did in 1987.) But in a recent interview with The Irish Times, McCoury joked that if he had been born just a few years later --as bluegrass began to be appropriated into rockabilly and rock-and-roll, as evidenced by Elvis Presley's recording of Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" -- his musical direction might have been quite different.

"I never made the connection [between rock-and-roll and bluegrass]," he said. "I knew Bill Monroe played mandolin a certain way, and then later on in life, when I heard those Memphis guitar pickers, they played a lot like Bill Monroe. But still I didn't make the connection. It was just something I didn't ever think about. You know, I was at an age when I should have been listening to Elvis Presley, but just a few years before rock-and-roll got big, I was listening to Earl Skruggs, and that kinda ruined me for life."

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