High-lonesome legacy 

Del McCoury is one of the best male bluegrass singers in the world. Possessed of a voice that's the essence of "high lonesome," McCoury has recorded more than a dozen albums as a bandleader and was named best male vocalist for three straight years by the International Bluegrass Music Association.

That's not bad for a guy who once worked a day job in Pennsylvania's lumber industry while aspiring to play banjo in bluegrass godfather Bill Monroe's outfit. McCoury's first big musical idol was Monroe's banjo-picking partner Earl Scruggs, whose revolutionary three-finger style of picking changed the way musicians approached the instrument. But it was Monroe who changed McCoury's future when he hired the young man to sing and play rhythm guitar in 1963.

McCoury was also designated night driver for Monroe's tour bus, which meant a dizzying daily itinerary of driving hundreds of miles. These days, the travel is a little bit different. "I tell you, we're usually back home here in the middle of the week," says McCoury. "We're always back home unless we do a tour."

McCoury's first album as a bandleader was released in 1967 while McCoury was still at his day job. "I was working in timber then, but I always played music too, on the weekends," he says. "`Now` I'm really in good financial shape. ... I haven't had to work in about 15 years."

McCoury has called Nashville his home for the last six years. With Music City as a base, his band doesn't have to go out on the road as much as most bluegrass musicians do, instead focusing on studio work and songwriting. "They play dates here in town," McCoury says of his musicians. "I give them free rein to do anything. ... All they have to do is be on the bus when it's time to go play somewhere."

McCoury has also recently changed labels. His new album will be coming out next year on Ricky Skaggs' new label, Ceilidh Records. The band also has another project backing up Steve Earle on his new bluegrass-oriented album due out in February, tentatively titled "The Mountain."

In concerts, the band performs a lot of material from their last album, "The Cold Hard Facts," but McCoury says that his older songs are still popular. Like bluegrass itself, McCoury's songs have managed to endure the test of time and do justice to the legends that guided his formative years.

More by Garaud MacTaggart


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