The Del McCoury Band Stretches Bluegrass Tradition Without Breaking It

The biggest surprise on the Del McCoury Band's new album, The Streets of Baltimore, isn't that the acclaimed group has recorded the easy-listening standard "Misty," immortalized in 1959 by Johnny Mathis. It's not even that the band based its version not on any of the popular jazz-vocal recordings of the song but on Ray Stevens' country arrangement, a hit in 1975. It's that McCoury and company, considered standard-bearers for traditional bluegrass, included drums on the song.

No one was more surprised by the decision than McCoury's son Rob, who has played banjo with his father since 1986. (His oldest brother, Ronnie, plays mandolin in the band.)

"That was all Dad," Rob says of the decision to record Stevens' arrangement of "Misty," drums and all. "It was kind of a surprise to me. They did that after the record was cut, so I wasn't down there. Next thing I know, Dad hands me a CD and I play it, and I'm like, wow. It was a shock, but it was a good surprise. I think it sounds really good on there. That Ray Stevens tune had that kick drum on there, and I think it kind of needed that. I think it sounds better with it."

Most of the new album, from the song selection to engineering, was directed by the elder McCoury, his son says. The title track, in particular, originally a hit for Bobby Bare in 1966, was chosen as a sentimental tribute to Del McCoury's days in Baltimore in the 1950s, before he joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys as guitarist and vocalist.

"It wasn't far from home, there in southeastern Pennsylvania," Rob McCoury says. "He worked every night of the week in the clubs. At one time, that was a real hotbed for bluegrass, that Baltimore/Washington, D.C., area. There were some good bands around—he played with Jack Cooke, who played with Ralph Stanley all those years. Jack was an ex-Blue Grass Boy; he had a band and they played all the time. There was Earl Taylor and Jim McCall, Walter Hensley, all these guys who were really good, up there in that area playing the clubs. First- and second-generation guys—they learned to play bluegrass when bluegrass was just happening."

The Del McCoury Band's reputation as one of the last original bluegrass bands—and as a symbol of its hardcore side—is well-earned. Del's tenure as a Blue Grass Boy connects him to the original source of the music, and the band sticks to the traditional instrumental lineup established by Monroe and the classic Blue Grass Boys roster (including Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt) in the 1940s: guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and bass. But ever since McCoury's '70s and '80s band, the Dixie Pals, became the Del McCoury Band in the early '90s, they've subtly stretched the boundaries of the bluegrass repertory, recording songs by Tom Petty, Robert Cray, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Lovin' Spoonful, and Richard Thompson and collaborating with Phish, Steve Earle, and, on the 2011 album American Legacies, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

"A good song's a good song," Rob McCoury says. "It's going to stand, no matter where it came from or who may have written it. Dad, he's very open-minded about music. When my brother and myself were growing up, we listened to bluegrass constantly—that's how we learned how to play the music—but we also listened to all kinds of rock 'n' roll, and Dad, he'd be right there with you. He's just always been open-minded about different kinds of music. You have to go outside the box to do something that hasn't already been done. Dad's got a real natural gift for that—he'll hear a song and figure it out his way and that brands it. He takes it and turns it into a Del McCoury song, no matter what kind of song it was in the beginning."

That kind of cross-pollination, in fact, is built into the DNA of bluegrass music. The McCourys learned about Monroe's interest in New Orleans jazz during their partnership with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and, as Rob McCoury points out, there's a long history of borrowing back and forth among jazz, country, the blues, gospel, rock 'n' roll, and bluegrass.

"Carl Perkins, he said the first rock 'n' roll tune he ever heard was the ‘Rocky Road Blues' by Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. He said, us guys heard that—we were playing electric guitars, but we were just trying to play like Bill Monroe. Chuck Berry, same thing—you can hear he's playing the same thing Bill Monroe played on the mandolin. He grew up on that stuff. Back then, everybody in the South listened to the Opry. It didn't matter if you were white, black, what you were, you listened to the Opry. Of course, Bill Monroe is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because of that."