Bluegrass bandleader Del McCoury, who turned 80 years old on February 1st, celebrated his birthday on the Grand Ole Opry stage Wednesday night surrounded by family, friends and fellow musicians. The celebration of McCoury’s life transformed the long-running live radio show into the “Grand Del Opry.”
The evening of musical tributes and collaborations included Opry members Dierks Bentley, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Old Crow Medicine Show and Jesse McReynolds, as well as guest artists Sam Bush, Abigail Washburn and the Travelin’ McCourys, the Grammy-winning group that includes Del’s sons Ronnie and Rob McCoury, who pull double duty in their dad’s band. The elder McCoury also sang with some of his guests: with Gill on a chill-inducing version of the gospel tune “Crying Holy Unto the Lord”; Sam Bush on the joyous “Roll on Buddy”; Old Crow Medicine Show on “Nashville Cats”; and with Bentley for “Good Man Like Me,” a McCoury tune Bentley cut for 2004’s Modern Day Drifter.
The video screen behind the Opry stage showed a series of tributes and well wishes to McCoury from friends unable to attend, including actor-musician Ed Helms, as well as Paul Simon, Charlie Daniels, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Urban and Patty Loveless. Others included Preservation Hall Jazz Band members Charlie Gabriel and Ben Jaffe, Phish’s Mike Gordon, Ronnie Bowman, and Dailey & Vincent, along with the Punch Brothers, who celebrated with a lively acoustic rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Steve Martin recalled sharing the stage with McCoury, whose high tenor voice was ringing in his ear. “I remember thinking, ‘Is that an angel over my shoulder?’ No, it was you,” said Martin. British folk-rock legend Richard Thompson noted in his taped message, “I think you’re the youngest 80-year-old I know. Plus, you’ve got all that fabulous hair.” A birthday cake featuring the “Grand Del Opry” show poster and an after-the-show picking party onstage rounded out the night.
In a conversation in one of the Opry dressing rooms, McCoury recalled being hired to play in Bill Monroe’s band while living next door to WSM in the now-demolished Clarkson Hotel.
“They had all the acts that played the Opry on the records in that library. You could play them but you couldn’t take them out,” McCoury told Rolling Stone Country. “I’d get out the songs Bill wanted me to learn and put the needle on there. Write a line down then move the needle until I got it all wrote down. He didn’t have time to tell me how to sing anything so that’s how I learned.”
An Opry member since 2003, McCoury recalled listening to the Opry with his dad and older brother as a young child growing up in Pennsylvania.
“By the time I was about 11, I heard Earl Scruggs,” he said. “It just hit me like a ton of bricks. My brother taught me how to play chords on the guitar, but I heard the banjo and thought that was what I would be doing from now on. But Bill Monroe changed my mind on that. He needed a guitar player and a lead singer.”
Opry member Marty Stuart, who joined McCoury for a thrilling rendition of the classic “Long Journey Home,” touched on the bluegrass musician’s innate joy. “Del loves everybody and everybody loves Del back,” he said. “And I think that reverberates back through the cast and the family of the Grand Ole Opry. So, when a night like this comes along there’s nothing to do but show up.”
Longtime fan Bentley echoed those sentiments. “I wrote Del a letter and I said, ‘If I have half the energy you have at 80, I’ll be happy,’” he said. “I played the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2017, and he took two flights to get there then dove an hour-and-a-half just to surprise me during my set. I had played his DelFest earlier in the year and that’s how he thanked me.”
Bentley, who arrived shortly after the Opry curtain went up because he had taken his 5-year-old son Knox to jiu-jitsu class, added, “When I moved here I was kind of lost. I was working for the Country Music Association, trying to get my foot in the door. It was really through the bluegrass community I was able to do that, walking to the Station Inn, meeting Ronnie and Rob McCoury and eventually becoming a Del-head. It really put the focus on music for me. Instead of trying to figure out how to make it in the industry it was more about just having fun playing music. That’s been the guiding force in my career.”
For his part, McCoury felt grateful and will hit the road again after a brief holiday break. “I feel as good as I ever did,” he said. “I don’t know what I would do. I would probably walk the floor and wring my hands if I wasn’t doing this.”
McCoury’s annual DelFest in Cumberland, Maryland, will take place Memorial Day weekend, with String Cheese Incident, Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, Marcus King Band, Billy Strings and others on the bill.