Del McCoury, foreground, and his band, including his sons Ronnie and Rob McCoury, play bluegrass, country and old-time music. [delmccouryband.com]

Guitar pickin,' bluegrass singin' boy

For more than 50 years, Del McCoury's music has defined authenticity for hard-core bluegrass fans as well as a growing number of fans among those only vaguely familiar with the genre.

McCoury is something special, a living link to the days when bluegrass was made only in hillbilly honky tonks, schoolhouse shows and on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry, yet also a commandingly vital presence today, from prime time and late-night talk show TV to music festivals where audiences number in the hundreds of thousands.

McCoury and his band will perform at 8 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3, at The Rogue Theatre, 143 S.E. H St., Grants Pass. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased at roguetheatre.com, by calling 541-471-1316 or at the box office. The show is open to ages 21 and older.

Born in 1939 in York County, Pennsylvania, McCoury would once have seemed an unlikely candidate for legendary status. Bitten hard by the bluegrass bug when he heard Earl Scruggs' banjo in the early '50s, McCoury became a banjo picker himself, working in the rough but lively Baltimore and Washington D.C. bar scene into the early 1960s.

McCoury got his first taste of the limelight when he joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in early 1963. Monroe, the "Father of Bluegrass," moved McCoury from the banjo to guitar, made him his lead singer and gave him a lifetime's worth of bluegrass tutelage direct from the source. Rather than parlay the gig into a full-time career with the master, McCoury returned to Pennsylvania in the mid-'60s to provide steady support for his new and growing family.

McCoury settled into working in the logging industry and formed his own band, the Dixie Pals. Then he piloted the group through a part-time career built mostly around weekend appearances at bluegrass festivals and recordings for labels ranging from the short-lived and obscure to roots music institutions like Arhoolie and Rounder Records. While there were the inevitable personnel changes and struggles, McCoury created a songbook filled with his interpretations of classic and traditional music and a growing number of originals, such as “High On A Mountain,” “Are You Teasing Me?” “Dark Hollow,” “Bluest Man In Town,” “Rain And Snow,” “Good Man Like Me, “Rain Please Go Away” and more that would become an important part of his legacy.

A big change came in 1981, when McCoury's 14-year-old son, Ronnie, joined the Dixie Pals as the band's mandolin player. Younger brother Rob came on board five years later, and the three McCoury's were ready to make a move.

Del McCoury was impressed with bluegrass artists Bill Monroe, the Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse playing live on Nashville television. He told his sons he thought Nashville was the place to be, and in 1992 the family moved to "Music City," Tennessee.

It turned out to be a big thing. Flash-forward to the '90s and the Del McCoury Band was on top of the bluegrass world, along the way giving birth to a more startling phenomenon: the emergence of the group onto the larger musical scene as a unique torchbearer for the entire sweep of bluegrass and its history. For it turned out that the unmistakable authenticity of McCoury's music — along with his goodnatured willingness to keep alert for new sounds and new opportunities — had bred fans in some unlikely places.

It's no surprise that bluegrass-bred stars like Gill and Alison Krauss — who first met McCoury at a bluegrass festival when Krauss filled in for his missing fiddler — would sing his praises, but who would have expected country-rock icons like Steve Earle or jam bands like Phish to have joined in the chorus? By the second half of the '90s, the acclaim — and McCoury's open-mindedness — put his band onstage jams with Phish and on the road and in the studio with Earle, bringing the Del McCoury Band's fierce musicianship and its leader an instantaneous, easygoing connection with listeners in new arenas. The group appeared on prime-time television and began an ongoing series of visits to popular late-night TV talk shows, toured rock clubs and college campuses, and found itself welcome at country and even jazz-oriented music festivals and venues.

Yet while reaching out to almost unimaginable audiences, McCoury's music retains its signature characteristics. This fifth decade of his half-century of music-making has been filled with new and ongoing triumphs.

The Del McCoury Band's stability has earned nine International Bluegrass Music Association Entertainer of the Year trophies; a name in the Grand Ole Opry Member Gallery; two Grammy awards for Best Bluegrass Album; and recordings and live performances with country artists Vince Gill and Dierks Bentley. The Del McCoury Band is a regular at Bonnaroo Music Festival, and McCoury's namesake festival, DelFest, has become one of the premier string-band events in the country.

McCoury might be 78, but he's singing better than ever and showing no signs of slowing down.

"Don’t ever let it be said," McCoury says on his website, "that what I do don’t bring me joy.… I’m a guitar-picking, bluegrass-singing, never grow up boy.”

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