Del McCoury Handpicked by Woody Guthrie’s Family to Finish Lost Songs
“Those songs were written when Woody was coming out of Oklahoma, listening to the Carter Family and hillbilly music,” says Nora Guthrie of the lyrics McCoury set to music. “I can’t possibly explain to a 30-year-old what that was like. So I thought, ‘Who don’t I have to explain this to?’ The answer was Del. That is just one of the many, many reasons I chose him. His style of playing, his voice, his band — there are so many similarities between Del and my dad.”
The as-yet untitled album, which contains songs Guthrie originally wrote between 1935 and 1949, doesn’t have a release date, but McCoury has already been performing some of the tracks live. Along with the customary audience requests for songs that span his 50-plus years career.
Born in York, Pennsylvania, McCoury developed his love for bluegrass after hearing Earl Scruggs’ banjo-playing on Fifties’ radio. Soon he was picking the banjo around the Baltimore-D.C. bar scene. It wasn’t long until Bill Monroe hired McCoury to join the legendary Blue Grass Boys, moving him from banjo to guitar and making him lead singer.
Although McCoury was primed to break out as a major bluegrass star, he returned to Pennsylvania to work as a logger to better support his growing family, playing music on the weekends with his band the Dixie Pals. When young sons Ronnie and Robbie joined the band, he relocated to Nashville to give the boys a better shot at more recognition.
It worked. In 2006, the McCourys won their first Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album for The Company We Keep, a category they’d win yet again in 2014 for The Streets of Baltimore.
“Very few people in the world will understand what it is to stand on a stage with your father when winning a Grammy,” says Ronnie McCoury. “It is the best feeling in the world. But I feel like that every night we are out there playing.”
Not that the elder McCoury will brag about any of this. Instead, he credits his fans with the group’s success.
“Well, you know, I guess we have got a lot of fans that we made back in the Sixties,” he says. “We also always had a lot of young folks as fans. We are just very fortunate that they like us and don’t forget us.”
And come see them each year at DelFest, along with the other bluegrass-leaning bands on the bill. This year’s lineup includes Old Crow Medicine Show, Jason Isbell, Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, Shovels & Rope, Yonder Mountain String Band’s Jeff Austin and his band, Nicki Bluhm & the Gamblers, Nora Jane Struthers, the Gibson Brothers and Trampled by Turtles.
“We don’t sit down and strategize,” says Ronnie McCoury of the sometimes eclectic line-ups. “We think about who we like and invite them. It comes out to be a nice mix.”
Del McCoury remembers the first time he and his sons heard the buzzed-about Trampled by Turtles. “Those guys tickled me to death. They play so fast, you can’t tap your foot to it,” he says. “Anyway, they are really big now.”
Still, even Trampled by Turtles would likely admit they have miles to go before they reach Del Status.
“I brag on him a lot. He never will,” says Ronnie McCoury about his father. “You think of everyone in the world who appreciates and loves Woody Guthrie music. There are some major rock stars like Bruce Springsteen who would love to [set Guthrie’s words to music]. But [Nora] chose my dad. I’ve always known what a great musician my dad is. Now the world will know it.”