Delano Floyd McCoury was born in Bakersville, North Carolina, on February 1, 1939. At an early age, the McCoury family relocated north, just above the Mason-Dixon Line in York County, Pennsylvania. It was his older brother G.C. who introduced the young Del to bluegrass through the music of Flatt and Scruggs.
“I learned to play music from my older brother, and we always listened to the Grand Ole Opry. In 1950, he bought some 78 RPMs, and one of them was Flatt and Scruggs. When I heard them playing “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”, I just couldn’t leave that record alone - I wore it out!” Del was so impressed by bluegrass music that he decided to take up the banjo. Although members of the extended McCoury family were versed in old-time music and claw-hammer style, finding pickers familiar with the then-new Scruggs style proved more difficult. “Not many people played banjo like Scruggs. I didn’t know anyone who played three-finger style, so I had to learn from records.”
One of Del’s early musical partners was Keith Daniels, a native North Carolinian living in Maryland at the time. The pair appeared on local radio with the Stevens Brothers, then founded Keith Daniels and the Blue Ridge Partners in 1958. During the fifties and sixties, the Baltimore area was a breeding ground for bluegrass talent. Receiving a medical discharge after a stint in the military, Del and younger brother Jerry worked in the Baltimore honky-tonks with the Franklin County Boys and then Jack Cooke’s Virginia Playboys. Cooke had recently quit Bill Monroe’s band. It was the gig with Cooke that brought Del to Monroe’s attention.
“I was playing banjo with him one night when Bill Monroe just walked right in and sat down in front of us - scared me to death!” Both Del and Cooke filled in for a brief tour with Monroe, but Del was soon invited to become a full-time Blue Grass Boy in early 1963. Under the impression he was trying out for the banjo job, a surprised Del was offered the guitar slot instead. Upon arriving in Nashville he contacted Monroe from his room at the Clarkston Hotel, right next door to the National Life and Accident Insurance Building, sponsors of the Grand Ole Opry.
“I called Bill when I got to my room and he said to meet him in the restaurant. I went down carrying my banjo and saw this other guy in the lobby with his banjo. The other banjo player was Bill Keith, or ‘Brad’ as Monroe called him.You see there was only one Bill in the band so he called him Brad, which was his middle name. Bill bought both of us breakfast and then we went up to the National Life and Accident Building. Bill said to me, “I want you to audition on guitar.” I thought it was strange - I had never even told him I could play one, even though that was the first thing I had learned as a kid. I took out Bill’s guitar and played it. He then told me he needed a lead singer. So he hired Bill Keith right then because he needed him for a new recording. He told me he’d try me out for two weeks and then get me into the union, which he did.”
Del was a Blue Grass Boy from February 1963 until early 1964, when he and his new bride Jean moved to California.
After a disappointing stint with the Golden State Boys, Del decided to return to York County, Pennsylvania. He spent time as a construction worker at a local nuclear power plant before being employed in the logging industry. Bluegrass gigs were much more plentiful back east, and Del would spend the next two decades as a part of the bluegrass scene in the Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia area. Fiddler and Blue Grass Boy alumnus Billy Baker made the trip to California with Del, and upon their return they formed the Shady Valley Boys. It wasn’t long before Del soon had his own band, Del McCoury and the Dixie Pals.
“In 1967, I started my own band without Billy...that was the Dixie Pals. Billy eventually came back and played fiddle on that first record, on Arhoolie Records.” Constant personnel changes were a matter a fact for most bluegrass acts of the day, especially given the pressure of keeping full-time employment while maintaining a band. “Back then I didn’t take it as seriously as I do now. It was more of fun thing. Musicians would come and go. I played the bluegrass festivals on weekends, sometimes a thousand miles away, just to keep a band together. I did that all through the seventies. I recorded some pretty good albums and had some good bands, especially for being just part time.”
In 1981, Del’s son Ronnie began playing with the band on a part-time basis at age thirteen. Among those who encouraged the young Ronnie was Bill Monroe himself. “I took Ronnie with me to a gig at the Lincoln Center. Monroe and a bunch of others were on the bill. He really took a liking to Ronnie and let him play his mandolin. It must have made an impression on Ronnie because when we got back home, he wanted to play mandolin. He was good enough after his first year to play rhythm in the band. I thought he might lose interest because not everyone’s cut out to be a musician. But once the boys started playing, they never quit - never put their instruments down.”
Robbie McCoury made his debut with the band in 1987, first on bass then moving to banjo the following year. As the sound of the group evolved, Del was persuaded to change the name of the Dixie Pals to the Del McCoury Band. Albums such as Don’t Stop the Music, Blue Side of Town and The Cold Hard Facts helped propel the band to the forefront of the bluegrass world, along with relocation to Nashville in 1992. With Mike Bub and Jason Carter on bass and fiddle respectively, the group has developed into one of the finest units to ever grace a bluegrass stage. The list of International Bluegrass Music Association awards garnered by the band over the next decade is too numerous to mention.
Ronnie and Robbie McCoury have developed into two of the finest instrumentalists of their generation. The brothers’ contributions to the success of the group should not be overlooked. It was their input that helped revitalize Del and gives him the inspiration to carry on. While both grew up absorbing Dad’s influence, they aren’t afraid to bring fresh contemporary arrangements and material to the group. The savvy Del knows better than to dismiss their ideas and treats the boys as musical partners.
“The boys think of music like I do, so their ideas are similar to mine. When you have that chemistry, it’s much easier to play. If I hear a song I know right off if I’ll like it or not. The boys are really good at that, so I’m letting them do more and more these days. I used to have to do it all - material selection, lead singing and teaching everyone the parts. Now these young guys are hearing much more different music than I am. They hear all kinds of styles.”
Throughout the nineties, the Del McCoury Band has embodied the best qualities of bluegrass. They have received exposure in the mainstream media for collaboration with the alternative rock group Phish. Another big fan of the Del McCoury Band is Steve Earle, with whom the band recorded 1999’s The Mountain.
“When Steve came up with the idea, I thought about it and figured it would help both of us as well as the music. He has admired bluegrass ever since he came to town.” Another factor cited by Del that piqued his interest in Earle’s project was the wealth of new material, a meaningful subject in Del’s opinion.
“Back when Bill Monroe first started playing, he didn’t have songs of his own. But once he started to write his own songs and later when Lester Flatt joined the group writing songs, bluegrass had its own style. We have to get new songs into the bluegrass genre to keep it fresh and up to date. You have to keep things growing.”
After a highly successful relationship with Rounder Records, the Del McCoury Band recently signed with Ricky Skaggs’ Ceili Records. The first project to test the new relationship, The Family, was also released in 1999 to wide acclaim from fans and critics alike. He is revitalized, re-energized and making the best music of his illustrious career. Today, the Del McCoury Band enjoys the praise of traditional bluegrass lovers and tie-dyed clad ‘Del-Heads’ alike.
Del has proven not to be a relic of bluegrass music’s past, but an architect of its future.