Del's boys: Ronnie & Rob are travelin' far & wide


Dan Craft   dcraft@pantagraph.com    Jan 14, 2016

DOROTHY ST. CLAIRE,  For The Pantagraph

DOROTHY ST. CLAIRE,  For The Pantagraph

Like father, like sons, to be sure. 

But sometimes the chips off the old block will fall where they may, due to circumstances beyond their immediate control.

"Actually, this has been going on for about five years now," notes Ronnie McCoury, one of the chips off that solid, silvery McCoury oak known as Del, towering in the bluegrass forest of legend alongside the likes of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and  Earl Scruggs.

Ronnie is referring to a group known as The Travelin' McCourys, billed as "80 percent of the Del McCoury Band," since four out of five people in it — Ronnie, kid bro' Rob, fiddler Jason Carter and bass player Alan Bartram— hail from same.

When these fellow bluegrass travelers take to the stage of the Castle Theatre Friday night, they'll be following three prior Castle shows involving both McCoury configurations: Del's band in 2011 and 2012; Del's boys' band in 2014 and, now, this weekend.

So which McCoury band is which, musically speaking?

"We like to go in and play traditional bluegrass music the way we do with Dad, but we also like to be able to step into situations where we can really stretch out," says big bro' Ronnie, who joined papa Del's band in 1981, at age 14.

"If we need to plug in, we'll plug in. We're open to anything."

We interrupt this plug for the Travelin' McCourys to reassure fans of papa Del that the old man's band is alive and well and kicking, with the 9th all-star edition of DelFest, his namesake Memorial Day weekend music fest, now ranked as one of the country's top roots music destinations, set for 2016 in Maryland.

"What happened," explains his good son, "is that Dad started looking at his age, which was around 72 at the time (he'll turn 77 in February). His mother lived until her mid-80s, but his dad passed at 72."

With that specter of mortality suddenly looming, "he started thinking about things and he thought maybe it would be a good time for us to get out of the nest and try to have our own band."

Fast-forward five years ... to now.

Of course, you can't keep a good musician down ... seventysomething or no. And Del has kept the original band, sons included, going strong, though scaled back to about 50 dates a year, or an average of one a week. 

"Dad is not one to sit still or retire, and that's the way it's gone ... he's still got an incredible voice and his musicianship is still great," notes Ronnie, 48.

"What's astonishing is that, because when we've been gone (with the Travelin' McCourys), he's been given the freedom to do all these collaborations, like the duet he did with Sam Bush two years ago."

So much for Dad's retreat.

As for the Travelin' McCourys, they've kept logging miles begun half a decade ago. Fresh off a Grand Ole Opry show just several nights before his GO! interview, Ronnie says the group has just entered a new phase with the addition this past fall of flat-picking prodigy Cody Kilby, who was off and running in his teens, straight into a 14-year run with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder.

He's also a highly sought-after studio player, most recently on Beck's Grammy-winning critical/popular success, "Morning Phase."

Prior to Kilby's joining, they'd kept the guitar slot vacated by Del open on a kind of revolving door basis, extending invitations to an array of ace friends and fans like Jeff White, Ronnie Bowman, String Cheese Incident's Billy Nershi, Alison Krauss Band's Dan Tyminski and Infamous Stringdusters' Andy Falco.

"We've enjoyed playing with so many guitar players we know," Ronnie says, but, he adds, the stability that has come with a permanent flat-picker of Kilby's prowess has upped their ante.

That began at last year's DelFest, where the pact was sealed.

"I guess we had our 'a-ha!' moment there .... we were on stage and it was like a light bulb went on," Ronnie says.

"With Cody, we really have the perfect combination: a great player, and he fits perfectly with what we do — straddling the fence between traditional and progressive. No matter what we throw at him, he can handle it."

Meanwhile, the brothers McCoury play on, and on ... on either side of the McCoury fence, with no end in sight.

"I've been in a band pretty much all my life," says Ronnie, "and I'll be coming on 35 years since I joined Dad's band. But neither of us was ever pushed or pressured by him to become musicians."

Ronnie was born March 16, 1967, in York County, Pa., where he lived until he was 24, then relocated with his wife Allison to Nashville, which is home to this day.

The McCoury boys were weaned on bluegrass, courtesy the many pickin’ parties held at the house, along with rehearsals that Del would have with his band of the era, the Dixie Pals.

Around age 13, after attending a show with his Dad where he saw Bill Monroe perform, Ronnie decided that, OK, yes, he wanted to be a chip off the old block and play some serious bluegrass mandolin (he'd taken violin lessons as a kid, but didn't keep at it).

Ronnie practiced on his mandolin for six months, soon followed by Del asking his son to fill it a recently vacated mandolin slot in his band.

That was on May 28, 1981; the slot has remained filled since.

Ronnie McCoury is more than happy to continue in that long-term role, but he's also happy to be a Travelin' man, too.

In Del's band, "Dad is always the front guy, it's his show, and it's him who keeps the crowd in the palm of his hand all the time," says Ronnie.

Sans Del, "it's something me and the other guys have had to learn how to do, even though we've been play his shows for so long. It's fun for us to figure out a bunch of stuff ...  the ways we can stretch out on our own." 

Travelin' men

Comprising the five members of The Travelin' McCourys are:

  • Ronnie McCoury, mandolin: See accompanying interview
  • Rob McCoury, banjo: Full name actually Robin (not Robert); four years Ronnie's junior; joined papa Del's band in 1987, six years after Ronnie; played bass for a year before switching to the banjo he picks to this day.
  • Cody Kilby, guitar: Bona fide bluegrass prodigy, winning awards as teen; member of Grand Ole Opry at 16; spent 14 years Ricky Skaggs' ace flatpicker with Kentucky Thunder; started travelin' with the McCourys last fall.
  • Jason Carter, fiddler: Picked up the fiddle and never put it down one day after hearing Del at age 16; in 1992, asked Del for a job, auditioned, has been there ever since; now with Travelin McCourys, too.
  • Alan Bartram, bass: Began music career with The Kenny & Amanda Smith Band; joined Del's band in 2005; followed Ronnie, Rob and Jason to Travelin McCourys in 2011.

Follow Dan Craft on Twitter: @pg_dcraf

 

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