Plus Guitar Talk: DEL MCCOURY has found magic in old Martins for more than six decades
When Del McCoury’s tour bus rumbled into the parking lot of our offices on a crisp morning in late November 2017, the band members were still waking up after a sold-out two-show night at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage club the previous evening. Coffee was consumed in abundance and Del immediately announced that they would only be playing instrumentals for the group’s Acoustic Guitar Sessions performance. “I don’t think I can hit any high notes this morning,” he said with chuckle. No problem! The band—Del (guitar), his sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo), Jason Carter (fiddle), and Alan Bartram (bass)—came alive the second the cameras started rolling, and they tore through a trio of uptempo bluegrass numbers with characteristic flash and skill.
These guys seem to be always on the road, or at the very least busy. Besides this group, the Del-less aggregation the Travelin’ McCourys also gigs a fair amount. There are albums to be made—a new one from each is coming out in May, one called Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass, the other The Travelin’ McCourys. And then there is the annual multi-act extravaganza known as Del Fest, this year taking place May 24–27 in Cumberland, Maryland. Still, Del—at 79—shows no signs of slowing down, and he was happy to take a few minutes to talk about guitars, a bit of history, and his approach to playing in one of the finest bluegrass bands in the land.
Tell us about that guitar you’re playing today.
I’ve played Martin guitars since 1956; I graduated high school in ’57. This guitar here is a 1947 D-28 Martin. I’ve got a whole bunch of guitars actually, but most of them are Martins. Sometimes a guitar company will give me one to play, and I usually tell them, ‘I appreciate this, but usually I play a Martin when I go onstage.’ The one I played most I got in 1959 or ’60, and it was a ’56 Martin Model D-28. I played that on all the records I recorded all through the years until the early ’90s. And then I had a lot of other guitars: I had two 1936 D-18s, which are mahogany instead of rosewood, and they’re great guitars—great for recording because they don’t have as much “boom” in the low end as a D-28. But I still love playing a D-28 guitar. They respond better on the bass strings, and I like that.
Can you talk a little about the role of the guitar in bluegrass? Traditionally, the musicians would probably be around one mic and that makes it a little harder for the guitar to cut through the fiddle and banjo and mandolin. How did you learn to adapt to that?
I started playing guitar when I was nine; my brother J.C. was a guitar player and a singer and he taught me how to play chords. And when I was 11 I heard Earl Scruggs and thought, “That’s what I’ve got to do—learn that banjo.” So I did, and learned well enough to play in bands. Bill Monroe took me to New York City to play banjo with him, and he told me later on, “I need a guitar player and a lead singer, and I want you to do that.” [Laughs] Just like that! I don’t know how he knew that I even played the guitar, but that’s what he wanted. I never did go back to playing the banjo, which was my first love—to play the three-finger roll on the banjo.
From that time till now I’ve played guitar. And I learned a lot from Bill Monroe. Like you said, we’d play on one mic, and that’s how we learned. Actually, we played a lot of dates without a microphone in those days, in the early ’60s. I can remember playing dates in eastern Kentucky when we were tuning up onstage before the show—we didn’t do a sound check because there was no “sound”—where Bill would say, “Now look, I’m going to put this match pack right there [on the floor in front of the middle of the group] and when it comes time for you to sing, you step right up there like that’s your microphone. Same with the fiddle player. Step right up there. Then they know you’re the lead person.” But when we did play on a microphone he’d say, “Get in there and crowd me” because he needed that rhythm up there with him. So I learned to play hard rhythm. And about the only guitars that would hold up to that hard rhythm and not lose their tone were Martins.
I played behind a fiddle a lot at square dances in the early years, where you had to play all night long, a lot of closed chords or whatever, and that helped me a lot with my rhythm. When you’re playing that much rhythm guitar you’ve got to learn how to use your wrist in the right way, and you’ll do that if you play long enough. Because if you use your arm too much you can’t last on a square dance. I learned that from Bill Monroe, too. He was the same way on that mandolin: It was all in his wrist; it was all right there.
You play the summer circuit of bluegrass festivals. Are there any young guitarists out there that you like?
Actually, I haven’t really paid attention to them like I should. I did years ago. I knew every guitar player, mandolin player, banjo player that was worth their salt; I knew their names. But as you get older . . . I just enjoy getting out onstage and entertaining people, talkin’ to the audience. Actually, the audience will entertain me more than I entertain them—they’re funny!
I got to know Doc Watson real early. I played out here in California with Bill Monroe in ’63 at the Ash Grove in L.A., and Ralph Rinzler brought Doc out to open shows for Bill. That was the first time I met Doc and the first time Bill had ever seen Doc—his rhythm was really great, and he could play lead. Now, I can’t play lead; I just never concentrated on it at all. I play runs, but Doc could play lead and then go right into playing a good solid rhythm. Tony Rice is the same way. There’s really not that many who can do that. And I can only do half of it, and that’s the rhythm part. I can’t play the lead part. I do love to hear lead guitar.
Do you find it difficult to maintain such a packed schedule?
I used to love to play all night long at festivals and then get up and play a show the next day. But once you get past 70, you’ve got to watch those things. I did two 90-minute shows last night and I can feel it. I used to be able to get up out of bed and sing high tenor, but as the years go by all that changes. But I still love playing. And I love playing an old Martin gee-tar!
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.