Ronnie McCoury Interview: Travelin’ McCourys, DelFest and Dad
Ronnie McCoury, an accomplished mandolin player and singer in the Del McCoury Band and the Travelin’ McCourys, graciously took a few minutes to chat with us from his home in Hendersonville, TN. Ronnie discussed the Travelin’ McCourys’ new album, as well as the band’s growing identity apart from his legendary father, Del McCoury. With DelFest 2018 just around the corner, we took a few moments to talk about Ronnie’s favorite music festivals and what fans can expect at Delfest 2018.
Ronnie, relaxed throughout our morning conversation, tends to laugh easily. His stories about his love for traditional and new bluegrass came with an unexpected Southern drawl, considering he hails from a small town in Pennsylvania. The morning interview began with a casual conversation about his hometown and his roots in bluegrass music.
Ronnie McCoury Interview: Travelin’ McCourys, DelFest and Del McCoury
I f you know anything about bluegrass music, you know of Del McCoury.
A legendary guitar player from the school of Bill Monroe and singer with one of the most recognizable voices in the business, Del McCoury has given the world dozens and dozens of recordings of classics and originals alike. He has crossed genres and found fans in all corners of the musical sphere (yes, spheres can have corners). He has performed thousands of times on countless stages, and easily secured his place in the pantheon of musical history.
And he has an amazing head of hair.
Del McCoury has also gifted the world with two musical sons who are carrying out his legacy.
Ronnie and Robbie McCoury both joined the Del McCoury Band in the 1980’s, and Del and his boys have carried on the bluegrass tradition, taking it to new heights and new audiences along the way.
During that time, and with their father’s blessing, Ronnie and Robbie formed their own group, the Travelin’ McCourys.
“When we started,” Ronnie says, “it was kind of like, oh, the Del-less McCoury Band, and I got that! Basically, pretty much my whole life has just been around my dad’s music and my dad’s band and trying to move things forward for all of us. And so when you concentrate on all that, you know, you gotta think, well, OK, now it’s time to make another step ahead here in your life.”
Along with Del McCoury Band bassist Alan Bartram, and fiddle player Jason Carter, The Travelin’ McCourys have taken that step and have been making waves throughout the music festival circuit.
However, when your guitarist was previously one of the most recognizable front-men in all of bluegrass, forging ahead without him is no easy task.
For many years, The Travelin’ McCourys accomplished this with a rotating cast of guitarists. Peter Rowan, Tony Rice, Andy Falco and Billy Nershi are just a few of the talented musicians who have shared the stage with the McCourys. Along with Keller Williams, the Travelin’ McCourys released their only previous album, Pick, in 2012.
In 2016, as the McCourys were attempting to forge their own identity apart from the Del McCoury Band, the need for a permanent guitarist became evident. To fill the gap, they needn’t look further than the first guitarist to ever collaborate with the Travelin’ McCourys, Cody Kilby.
Kilby had spent 14 years with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. Cody “was kind of ready for a change,” according to Ronnie, “and he wanted to jump on board! Once that happened, we could actually be a cohesive thing and figure some songs out. That’s how the recording started.”
With a permanent guitarist firmly in place, the Travelin’ McCourys were ready to release their own music, but it has been a long time in the works.
As Ronnie told us, it has been a bit of a different process than on the 15+ albums he has recorded with Del.
“When we recorded with my dad – for the most part – we would go in and really knock it out in a week or so and get the whole record, because he knew what he wanted to record. [The Travelin’ McCourys] were still just finding our sound … and writing songs and also, you know, picking songs that were new to us. So that process was a little bit different than with my dad.”
Over the past few years, Ronnie and the Travelin’ McCourys have released a number of singles as they have been recorded. Not wanting to keep the fans waiting too long for the album, they have shared the music as it’s been created.
“Just getting our feet in the water here. And you know, the other side of that is we have been busy. We live up to our name!”
That they do. The McCourys are always on the road, either as the Travelin’ McCourys or with the Del McCoury Band – often with both on the same bill.
Ronnie talked about time on the road and how it has helped to shape what they do.
“We did about 70, maybe 75, shows as the Travelin’ McCourys and I think we did about 70 with my dad. He’s a great voice and he’s healthy and he’s playing great, so we just want to keep that going because, you know, in my opinion, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it!”
And keeping up with Del McCoury is no easy feat! Aside from the Del McCoury Band, Del can often be found on the road with David Grisman as Del and Dawg.
“He’s a workhorse…and that’s what makes him happy. I mean, that’s what he’s here to do, you know?”
Ronnie and Robbie McCoury have also clearly inherited their father’s work ethic and love for sharing their music. With such accomplished musical careers already under their belts and universal recognition as masters of their instruments – (if you want to know about all of their awards, just ask their proud Dad!) – the Travelin’ McCourys could easily have maintained along this same path.
But the Travelin’ McCourys are not just an extension of the Del McCoury Band. They are uniquely carving a niche, creating their own style and sound.
“Well, that’s been another trick we’ve tried to figure out from day one. We were playing around the same type of microphone as my dad does. More like traditional bluegrass. And that’s really all we really knew. Although, all my life I had listened to all kinds of music and played different kinds of music but never really tried to work it up and make a show out of it.”
As the Travelin’ McCourys began to mature as a force of their own, they started to grow a new identity, separate from the Del McCoury Band.
“We decided we needed to get in another game here as far as sound goes. We all plugged in and we came in for more volume and this and that. And we’ve got these great singers – Alan and Jason – and it gives them a lot more freedom to do what they want to do. Then we were able to stretch out some songs instrumentally – which is something that I have always enjoyed doing. You just don’t really do that much in the traditional setting.”
Ronnie grew up with heroes like David Grisman, Sam Bush, and Tony Rice -artists known for “stretching the acoustic boundaries.”
“I grew up listening to them and watching them and being around all them – and actually playing on their shows, playing their music. So I knew that was part of me. It’s always something that I enjoy doing. And so we can incorporate a lot of that into the Travelin’ McCourys.”
And they do. As with many of the bands currently popular throughout the music festival scene, the Travelin’ McCourys are destroying boundaries, creating new sounds and blending genres into indescribable new territory.
“I don’t know what you’d call what we do. We’re just using these bluegrass instruments now, and some people call it jambands – or whatever they call it, but you know, you just want to be basically accepted for what you’re doing. Give it a name if you want, but that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Since 2008, Del McCoury and his family have been hosting DelFest in Cumberland, Maryland. The festival has grown into one of the best in the nation, featuring top-tier talent from bluegrass and those other genres that fall outside of simple description. Some of the highlights of DelFest are always centered around the many collaborations- both staged and spontaneous – that have become a staple of the festival.
This year, an added bonus to the festival lineup is the Bluegrass Congress. Del began teasing the lineup of this “once in a lifetime” collaboration on Facebook, sharing the hand-rolled parchment invitations that were sent to the artist invitees. Along with an image of the artists crossing the “DELaware” River, the excitement was built early for this performance.
We now know that the inaugural Bluegrass Congress at DelFest 2018 will be called to order with Ricky Skaggs, David Grisman, Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, and Stuart Duncan all joining the Del McCoury Band.
For a festival featuring collaborations and all-night picks, this seems like icing on the cake. For Ronnie, it was an obvious extension of what they already do.
“I have pickin’ parties here at my house a lot and I’d say everybody has been to them that’s on that list… and my dad had them when I was young and they’d just get together and play …so it’s kind of a take on that, you know. So, we’re going to get these guys together to have this big jam and see what happens.”
We’re anticipating a private McCoury picking party that somehow several-thousand fans are going to be lucky enough to witness.
“It’s not going to be too scripted at all, you know, and it’s gonna be a little free. We’re just looking forward to getting on stage and seeing what we can do. There’ll be a lot of people up there!”
Another ongoing highlight of DelFest is the DelFest Academy. Now in its 10th year, DelFest Academy is a “four-day learning experience with some of the finest musicians in bluegrass serving as instructors for students of all levels.” Taking place the week leading up to the festival, the Academy gives students of all ages and levels a chance to learn from the icons of the genre, and perform alongside them.
“When we had our first festival, I thought, well, we need to do this. My brother Rob and his wife Lisa have kind of taken the reigns on the Academy. And it’s just something that people can come and we get to sit down and teach them things. Years ago in Nashville here, every Tuesday night at a club called the Station Inn we used to do what’s called a bluegrass karaoke. And we started this thing and people just loved that. They can get up and sing whatever song they want to do with us. So we do that every evening at the end of the Academy. They throw us some curve balls a lot of times!”
Students return year after year to the DelFest Academy, anxious to show off the chops they have developed since the last Academy.
“You see the progression…and it’s mainly in the young people that really can blow your socks away, cause they’re young and they can just learn, learn learn.”
This year’s DelFest, as always, features an amazing lineup of artists across the board. Along with the Del McCoury Band, The Travelin’ McCourys and the Bluegrass Congress, the DelFest stages will host Greensky Bluegrass, Old Crow Medicine Show, Sam Bush, The Dawg Trio, Infamous Stringdusters, Fruition, The Wood Brothers and many, many more.
Among this year’s DelFest acts is one of Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 20 Guitarists of All Time, British Folk-Rock pioneer Richard Thompson. Fans of Del McCoury may be more familiar with Thompson as the composer and original performer of the Del McCoury favorite, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”
We couldn’t let an interview with Ronnie go by without addressing the elephant in the festival – who will we see perform the classic “Vincent” at this year’s DelFest?
“You never know! I don’t know if I should let the cat out of the bag.”
That’s about as much as we thought we’d get out of Ronnie on this one.
“It’s hard to beat a man at his own game…”
Festy Five with Ronnie McCoury
First Rock Concert?
My first Rock Concert was Rush – I was 16.
Last album listened to?
John Prine’s Tree of Forgiveness
I used to do yard work for an Italian fiddle player. I’d ride my bike to it. And after that, I was a bus boy. I used to do a lot of Construction.
Favorite guilty road snack?
This is a guilty road snack – it’s mainly from Kentucky. I don’t eat a whole lot of meat and beef, you know, I don’t eat that much. But there’s a beef jerky here. Mingua. And it’s hot and it is, it is a guilty snack.
On a scale of one to 10, how cool are you?
Well, we think your fans would beg to differ.
Before letting Ronnie go, we wanted to know about some of his other favorite music festivals, aside from DelFest, of course.
“There’s several that I like that have been around forever and then there’s something about the new ones that are really neat. You know, from Telluride, the setting is just gorgeous. That’s a hard one to beat. That’s a great line up every year. But I like ones like Grey Fox that we’ve been to for 30 years or something.”
Our last run-in with the Travelin’ McCourys was at Bender Jamboree in Las Vegas.
“The whole thing about it is interesting. I mean, you walk outside and it’s interesting.”
What happens in Vegas… (but you can read about some of it here!)
“I’ve been there to Florida, for Suwanee. I don’t know if you’ve been down to those. Boy, that’s a pretty one! That’s cool, that’s really – what a place! Also, the one up in Wisconsin, Blue Ox, is another I like.”
On that note, we’ll leave you with a story from Blue Ox Music Festival in 2016, which we shared with Ronnie upon his mentioning of that festival.
The first Blue Ox was a mud pit – there’s no other way to describe it. The rains came in for the first 2 days in biblical proportions. The music was amazing, and we all gave in and embraced the mud.
The skies finally cleared when the Del McCoury Band took the stage. As is normal for these gentlemen, they were all pristinely attired in classy suits and shiny shoes, including Del McCoury, who was sporting a spotless white suit and perfect hair.
Obviously, we were impressed and intrigued as to how Del and the boys could look so good when we all looked like we had been mud-wrestling for a week. Our only guess was that the whole crew arrived wrapped in plastic and weren’t unzipped until they had safely been placed on the stage.
When we spotted Ronnie backstage, still spotless despite the mud pits surrounding him, my partner, Kelly, couldn’t resist asking.
“I’ve got to know – how are your boots still so clean?” she said.
“Oh, well that’s easy,” Ronnie said. “They’re not boots, they’re roller-skates!”
When we related this story again to Ronnie, he reacted with his infectious chuckle and said, “You know, as a guy said, it ain’t no hobby!”