On Thursday night at the International Bluegrass Music Assn. Awards at the Ryman Auditorium, on the very stage where the music was introduced to the world, Del McCoury was inducted into IBMA's Hall of Fame. This was an inevitable induction, but it was gratifying to see a legend inducted while still very much at the top of his game and not, for example, dead. Del’s sons Ronnie and Rob offered a warm career overview, and when Del came up on stage, he invited along his extended family, including a grandson Del. And looking like a patriarch at the center of a Christmas card photo, Del made the loveliest, funniest, sunniest acceptance speech one could imagine.
My heart was full and my eyes moist, but none of it topped what happened a couple hours later when, following an awards after-party at the Hard Rock Café, I walked back up the hill toward the Renaissance Hotel. I cut through the Ryman parking lot and there, at about 12:45 am, was Del and his wife Jean, his managers and a couple other family members saying good-night around their cars. It was a great opportunity to stop and say congratulations.
I've met and spoken with Del several times in my years of fandom/reporterdom, and I've tried to cultivate a kind of professional nonchalance about meeting great artists so that I could do my job. But I literally trembled as I shook Del's hand, and I had a hard time getting the words out to say how much I appreciated his contributions. He was his usual self-effacing and beatific self, his smile like a warm July sun. My heart accelerated. It was a moment I'll never forget.
This is because Del McCoury is a much bigger deal and a more complex figure than even many of his fervent fans or the Hall of Fame induction committee understand. I feel certain that without his searching musicality, truth be told his liberal outlook on his art form, bluegrass would be much less energetic, diverse or exciting today. There have been many large, bridge-building careers in this era, but I believe the Del McCoury Band is responsible for more new young bluegrass fans and bands than anyone else. And thus we have to ask ourselves, on the occasion of this historic induction, how it's possible that Del McCoury is the lodestar of bluegrass for arch-traditionalists AND jamgrass-oriented newbies, even as a significant segment of the bluegrass community encourage others to think of Yonder Mt String Band and their ilk as a threat to the music. Del's never seen it that way. And yet even his off-the-charts cred with what I call the Bluegrass Birthers isn't enough for them to relax and let the industry at large do nothing more than follow Del’s example.
On Tuesday of IBMA’s just-ending World of Bluegrass, I conducted a Keynote Interview with Ben Kauffman and Dave Johnston of the super-hot Yonder Mountain String Band. We talked about business, audience building and the state of bluegrass of course, but I also made a point to talk about Del and their collaborations. They were effusive with respect and awestruck reverence about how Del had embraced and encouraged them and the wider music scene. And this has been going on since before Yonder was a serious band. Starting in the mid 1990s, the Del McCoury Band played traditional and non-traditional venues for bluegrass music and pursued on-stage and in-studio collaborations with all kinds of other artists. Here’s a 1998 interview with one of those bands – Phish – in which Trey calls Del one of his “true links to traditional American music.” And the band cites the then-new Groovegrass project, which included Del, Doc Watson and Bootsy Collins, of all people, as well as an insane recording of the Macarena. This was also around the time when Del collaborated with Americana rocker Steve Earle on the remarkable The Mountain album. Historians may be able to dig up some evidence of a backlash among the Bluegrass Birthers at the time, but this is the stretch when the Del McCoury Band won nine IBMA Entertainer of the Year Awards in eleven years, so it seems he never lost his traditional cred. We who have spent the past year defending the idea of a “big tent” IBMA and bluegrass infrastructure can only scratch our heads that there’d be any resistance whatsoever in light of Del’s accomplishments. Del’s tent has been huge for the entire stretch of his current band’s career. And guess who’s also the most recognizable, successful BLUEGRASS band of the modern era?
Speaking of big tents, it was under one that I saw the Del McCoury Band have the honor of being the only hard-core bluegrass band invited to play the first Bonnaroo festival in 2002, then regarded as the apotheosis of 21st century jam band festivals. I’ve often cited that set as one of the most moving and important I’ve seen in my life. I feel lucky to have been there. When Ronnie introduced his father a few songs in, a roar went up from deep in the hearts and diaphragms of those six or seven thousand people. And it went on and on, and then it got BIGGER, and the memory of that crescendo is so clear and vivid to this day that I nearly choke up recalling the emotional swell of that moment.
I knew how wonderful Del and the Boys were at that time, but I really had no idea how far they’d penetrated the jam band audience. And when I say jam band audience, I do so with immense respect because in my adult life, no musical fan base has invited in so much new, searching, exploratory music or given the its love and money to alternative, non-commercial music with so much enthusiasm. This was a synaptic, cultural connection of the most real and exciting kind, like discovering that two dear friends from different parts of your life know each other.
The implications of this connection and affection are many, but I’ll just cite one. The Steep Canyon Rangers, who just took the IBMA Entertainer of the Year on Thursday night along with their temporary “leader” Steve Martin were directly inspired by Del. Those guys were part of the collegiate generation who heard Del because he was coming to them, not waiting for the college crowd to find him in Galax, VA or Denton, NC. They started performing before they were very good on their instruments or as a band, they will admit, but nobody can deny that they practiced their way to the top of the bluegrass mountain. And I think they’d agree that without the Del McCoury Band as a beacon, it wouldn’t have happened.
So for those who seem to think that tradition and evolution are some kind of mutually exclusive choice, I give you Del. He’s proof that you’re wrong. Tradition and evolution are interwoven and mutually supporting. They are complimentary forces whirling around each other like the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol or two hippies twirling in Golden Gate Park, as they are no doubt doing right now at this weekend’s Del-crazy Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. That event got it so right with its name. Bluegrass is not and has never been a Strictly thing. It’s as loose as our imaginations, which are in reality, not worth a damn or even biochemically possible without a grounding in and appreciation for the past. It’s the reason that I love this music more than just about any other and why it keeps refreshing itself. I’ve never been so bullish on the upside for bluegrass music and its large crop of emerging bands, and I’d refer you to Chris Pandolfi’s April Bluegrass Manifesto and his Keynote Speech this week at WOB for more on that, if you haven’t read/seen them. There are many reasons this music is going to continue its rocket ride into the mainstream, but I don’t think it would have really had the engines lit without Del and the Boys.