Ronnie McCoury grew up bluegrass.
As the son of legendary singer and guitarist Del McCoury, he and his brother Rob spent most weekends in the summer watching their father play at festivals up and down the East Coast.
“If it was in a few hundred miles radius, we would all go and be there for the weekend camping out,” the 50-year-old renowned mandolinist remembers. “I thought it was a normal childhood being at a bluegrass festival running around and all that.”
McCoury started playing classical violin in an orchestra at age 9.
“I was not very good,” he laughs. “Well, nobody is at that age. I was so into sports that after a couple years I had to choose between this big basketball game or a recital. I chose basketball and quit playing the violin.”
It wasn’t until four years later when he saw his father play a concert with “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe that something clicked.
“When I saw Bill come out there and play, I knew that I really wanted to play the mandolin,” he says. “That was kind of the moment for me.”
His father’s banjo player at the time, Dick Smith, had a mandolin he was in the process of piecing together. Six months after he gave it to Ronnie, the young gun was up onstage performing with his dad. He’s been there ever since.
I thought it was a normal childhood being at a bluegrass festival running around and all that.”
After touring with their father for more than two decades, Ronnie and Rob formed The Travelin’ McCourys in 2009. Featuring 2017 International Bluegrass Music Association Bass Player of the Year Alan Bartram, five-time IMBA Fiddler of the Year Jason Carter and 1998 National Flat Pick Guitar Champion Cody Kilby, who played with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder for 14 years, the band is a virtual all-star team of bluegrass royalty.
“Through with the years we’ve played with at least 20 other guys,” McCoury says. “Everybody from Andy Falco (of The Infamous Stringdusters), Billy Nershi (of The String Cheese Incident), Tony Rice, and Dan Tyminski (of Alison Krauss & Union Station). Now since Cody joined us two years ago, it’s really all come together.”
After eight years of steady touring, the band finally has finished recording its debut album, which was released along with their father’s new LP last Memorial Day weekend at the annual DelFest in Cumberland, Maryland.
“Jason and Alan are great singers,” McCoury says. “Alan is good songwriter, too, and has co-written three of the songs for the album. So you’re gonna get a taste of all of us.”
Although he and Rob were raised in and around traditional bluegrass, they’ve also been a big part of the classic genre’s more recent crossover appeal into the jam band and popular music scenes.
They first met Phish in early 1990s Atlanta when they were introduced via Colonel Bruce Hampton and Reverend Jeff Mosier of The Aquarium Rescue Unit.
“(Mosier) gave those guys my dad’s latest record ‘The Blue Side of Town’ in 1991,” McCoury recalls. “They said they rode around in a van for a year just playing that thing over and over. (Guitarist) Trey (Anastasio) said that was the most played music in his home back in the early ’90s. Apparently, he played that thing to death. Later on, they took one of my dad’s songs, ‘Beauty of My Dreams’ and incorporated it into their shows.”
Skip ahead to 1999 and Phish’s Camp Oswego summer festival, where The Del McCoury Band was playing on the side stage. Anastasio called them up during the first set of the second day saying, “They’re big heroes of ours and we’re very excited.”
They proceeded to rip through four tunes with Del and the boys including “Back on the Train,” “If You Need a Fool” and “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome.”
“There was a kid in the audience that day named Chris Pandolfi,” McCoury says. “I don’t know if he was picking much banjo at that time, but he now plays with The Infamous Stringdusters and he’s said that that’s what made him want to do it.”
The Infamous Stringdusters won a Grammy for Bluegrass Album of the Year for their 2017 release “Laws of Gravity.”
“You don’t know how things happen in life,” McCoury says. “We got to play with those guys again when they came to Nashville the following year. Trey’s been to DelFest a couple times and Fish (drummer Jon Fishman) really enjoys playing with us. He rehearses a lot to our records. It’s kind of funny, you know, how these things kind of happen organically.”
While the number of bluegrass-only festivals may be on the decline, McCoury has seen an overall uptick in interest for the genre, most recently through the popularity of the soundtrack to 2000 film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”
“I guess what I like about it is I’ve always thought there is such a variety in the tempos and feelings of different songs,” McCoury says. “It’s got lots of sad songs and love songs and a mixture of everything. My dad being 79 still loves to play fast. To me, it’s got it all — gospel music, harmony singing, jazz, folk songs, real true-life songs. Bill Monroe was the first true-life songwriter in Nashville and country music. He wrote about things that happened to him. He predated Hank Williams. I just love the elements of all that.”
For McCoury, bluegrass is and forever will be on the rise.
“There’s always something like (“Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”) that kicks it into overdrive again and I think were due for another one soon,” he says. “Since I started in 1981, it’s grown in leaps and bounds. I see a lot of young people playing now more than I was younger. A lot of people are getting on the bandwagon playing these instruments. You can’t rely on electronics. With bluegrass, it’s just you and your instruments. I think kids like the challenge of it in that way.”
– Sean McAlindin
- The Travelin’ McCourys with very special guest David Grisman
When: 9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1
Where: Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room
Tickets: $30 in advance or $35 on the day of the show
Red Room after-party: Cascade Crescendo