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Center Stage: Del McCoury getting a little help from his friends

April 11, 2019

TOM NETHERLAND | SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER

Del McCoury leaned forward after an interview in Richmond, Virginia.

“Have you ever heard of the band named Phish,” McCoury asked. “They spell their name with a P. We’re playing with them tomorrow night. My boys say they’re really big.”

Twenty years and incredible heights reached later, the Del McCoury Band route to the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee, on April 20. Widely heralded, the bluegrass band leads “With a Little Help From Our Friends,” a show that includes The Gibson Brothers, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses, Dre Anders and Cody Kilby.

“I’ll do a show with my band,” McCoury said last week by phone from his home in Glenville, Pennsylvania. “We’ll come out at the end and do all of our stuff.”

Patterned similar to a Grand Ole Opry show, McCoury’s “Friends” show features short sets from the aforementioned bluegrass acts. McCoury helms the pack.

“I’ll play along, sing a little bit,” McCoury, 80, said. “We haven’t done many of these shows, two I think.”

Like a line from a Grateful Dead song, it’s been quite a long strange trip through bluegrass history for McCoury. He began on banjo, thanks to an early obsession with Earl Scruggs and his transformative three-finger roll.

“In 1950, Flatt and Scruggs’ ‘Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ came out on a 78 rpm record on Mercury Records,” McCoury said. “That record snaked me in. It wasn’t the song; it was the backup on that banjo. Earl rolled up the neck, just flying. Genius is what it was. He used that neck the whole way, man.”

Just out of high school, McCoury played banjo for about 10 years.

“I played for Bill Monroe from February ‘63 to February ‘64,” McCoury said. “I learned from his example, the way he carried himself on stage.”

McCoury worked a day job throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and into the ‘80s. On the weekends, he led The Dixie Pals. He moved to Nashville in 1992 with his renamed band, The Del McCoury Band.

“We started getting on television, and so many things happened,” he said.

A string of adventurous, tight albums during the 1990s — including 1996’s “The Cold Hard Facts,” elevated The Del McCoury Band to the pinnacle of bluegrass. Awards mounted. Tours, domestically and internationally, flourished.

Then along came Steve Earle. The rebellious country singer enlisted The Del McCoury Band for an album, “The Mountain,” and tour in 1999. The year proved pivotal for the McCourys.

“We did ‘The Tonight Show’ with Steve Earle,” McCoury said. “He did his song, then we came on and did ‘Nashville Cats.’ We did that, and they tore the place apart. We went over to Europe with Steve. We did 30 days.”

Alas, Earle exited the tour early. A rift established, partly because of Earle’s manner of language on stage, that irreparably separated Earle and The Del McCoury Band.

However, on the balmy day of July 18, 1999, fortunes changed forever for The Del McCoury Band. They performed with rock jam band superstars Phish during the band’s Camp Oswego Festival in New York.

“I think there was 77,000 people there,” McCoury said. “Trey Anastasio (of Phish) said, ‘What can we sing together? ‘ I thought, some rock number. He said, ‘Do you know ‘I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome?’”

Well, of course McCoury knew the song, which was co-written by Bill Monroe and Hank Williams. He’d played it hundreds of times with Monroe. However, he had never performed that or any other sing in front of such a massive audience.

Life changed in a blur for the gentlemanly McCoury.

“It really did,” he said. “A lot of those people still come to our shows today. It’s amazing. It made a big difference. A lot of the jam band people are now fans of us.”

Twenty years later, McCoury still sings with a high but not so lonesome voice. He’s a member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, tours often, records regularly and explores music with gusto.

The fire still burns within the man who never learned to frown.

“I still like talking to people from the stage,” McCoury said. “They entertain me more than I entertain them. I enjoy doing records and doing shows. It’s still fun after all these years.”