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Del McCoury and The Travelin’ McCourys: Natural Born Pickers

Jeff Tamarkin | June 07, 2018

There are two things that Del McCoury, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest bluegrass singers and guitarists of all time, didn’t want to do when he was starting out: sing and play guitar. He was content to play the banjo and fade into the background.

“It’s funny how life goes,” says Del, recalling those long-ago days. “Sometimes you do things you don’t want to do. When I quit playing with Bill Monroe, I thought, ‘If I’m gonna get my own band, it’d work better if I do play the guitar because I can hold the rhythm up in the band. And sometimes, there might not be a good tenor singer in the band. Well, I can do that—I’ll just sing the verses and sing tenor on the chorus.’”

Now 79 and more than five decades removed from that life-changing stint with Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys—the band often credited with creating the genre—Del McCoury is the longtime leader of his own namesake band and the inspiration behind one of the country’s most highly anticipated annual music festivals. It’s a family affair: His sons—mandolinist Ronnie, 51, and banjoist Rob, 47—are not only core members of The Del McCoury Band but also co-leaders

of The Travelin’ McCourys, a spinoff that takes bluegrass outside of its comfort zone. Fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram round out both outfits, with guitarist Cody Kilby taking Del’s place in the combo that the brothers affectionately call “The Travelers.” Everyone, of course, sings.

Both The Del McCoury Band and The Travelin’ McCourys will release new albums this spring—on their own McCoury Music label. The title of the former, Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass, is a nod to the elder artist’s solo debut, Del McCoury Sings Bluegrass, released originally on Arhoolie Records and celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The Travelin’ McCourys marks a different kind of milestone: It’s the eight-year-old band’s proper debut album, following Pick, a 2012 collaboration with Keller Williams, and a number of singles and solo/duo releases.

“It feels really good to finally get it out because, in the beginning, for five years or more now, we just bounced around with so many different guitar players,” says Ronnie. “We wrote them all down the other day and there must have been 20 guitar players. We never hired anybody. We just had gigs, but we couldn’t support somebody until just the last two years.”