Hocking Hills Music Festival 2021 WOUB Culture Interviews: Del McCoury< < Back to
There is a kind of rare warmth to Del McCoury’s voice when he picks up the phone for our interview.
Does it sound like the voice that has claimed the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year Award four times and received the United States government’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts – the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship – just to name a few of its accolades?
Of course, it does.
Be that as it may, that’s not quite what I’m talking about – the quality of Del’s voice in question is a sort of kindness that seems to only radiate from those who have worked incredibly hard and accomplished quite a lot – and enjoyed the ride all the way through.
McCoury’s illustrious career in bluegrass dates back to his youth, when he found himself captivated by a different sort of music than his peers.
“When I was in high school, all the kids were listening to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, but I wasn’t, I had heard Earl Scruggs already! I heard Earl Scruggs play his banjo, and I thought, ‘man, that’s something!’ so I wanted to learn to do that. And I did!” said McCoury. “Later, I got a job with Bill Monroe and on my first date that I played with him, I was on banjo. Then, Bill Monroe needed a guitar player and lead singer. So I signed on to do that. And that’s why, to this day, I play guitar and sing. Bill Monroe did that!”
The galvanizing essence of Monroe’s music touched many. McCoury pointed out the B-side to Elvis Presley’s very first single, “That’s Alright” was none other than “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” a song penned by Monroe and recorded by Monroe and his band, The Bluegrass Boys. The earliest known instance of Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys playing “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was during the August 25, 1947 broadcast of The Grand Ole Opry.
Had Presley been listening?
McCoury underscored how important the Grand Ole Opry radio show was to a world still many decades out from the widespread embrace of television, let alone the Internet.
“Back then, people didn’t have TVs for the most part. I mean, a lot of the country people especially didn’t have TVs, but they had radios. So they’d turn the grand Ole Opry on Saturday night and it was a ritual!” said McCoury. “Bill was a big performer. He signed on with the Grand Ole Opry in 1939. And he was only the second vocalist to do that. The first vocalist was Roy Acuff, he signed on with the Grand Ole Opry in 1938. At the time, the Grand Ole Opry mostly just played like square dance music, like with a fiddle and a banjo or something like that, you know? But then, they started singing on the Grand Ole Opry, and it was really something.”
Late last year, McCoury and his band, the Del McCoury Band, released a cover of “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye,” a song that was penned by Doug Gilmore and Mickey Newbury first made famous by Jerry Lee Lewis in 1969. As it turns out, “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye” is certainly not the first time McCoury has performed a tune often attributed to the great Jerry Lee Lewis.
In 2007, the Del McCoury band were the only bluegrass act Jerry Lee Lewis requested play a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame organized tribute to the rock ‘n’ roll great in Cleveland. Del and his band played “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous” for the show, which featured Lewis sitting smack dab in front of the stage to watch the acts.
“I’ve always liked Jerry Lee Lewis’ singing. He would’ve made a great bluegrass singer, but it just so happened he was a rock and roller!” said McCoury.
The Del McCoury Band will perform at the 2021 Hocking Hills Music Festival, slated to take place Friday, October 8 through Saturday, October 9. Find more information on the festival and the rest of the line-up at hockinghillsmusicfestival.com.