Del McCoury: Bitten by the bluegrass bug

Del McCoury and bluegrass go hand-in-hand. In a recent conversation, he said it was 1950, when he was 11, that he learned about bluegrass music when he heard an Earl Scruggs tune on the radio.

“Well, I heard it before I knew what it was,” McCoury said. “I’m sure I heard the term bluegrass before then, My dad and my brother listened to the Grand Ole Opry all the time on the radio.”

Growing up in Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, McCoury, 72, said the radio signal from Nashville was clear.

We chatted with him recently about his long career in bluegrass.

When did you decide that music is what you wanted to do?

Probably when I was 11 and I heard Earl Scruggs. I graduated from high school in 1956. Elvis Presley was hotter than a two-dollar pistol then. All the kids were listening to Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. I was bitten by the Earl Scruggs bug.

Who were your bluegrass heroes?

Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, the Osborne Brothers. I would say they were the main ones. Flatt and Scruggs, they were really good. They later joined the Opry. They got really famous with (the theme song from) “The Beverly Hillbillies.” That’s when the popularity for bluegrass really went up. Flatt and Scruggs became the highest paid act on the Opry. Bluegrass has had its ups and downs and plateaus. What really boosted bluegrass was the festivals starting up. The second big boost was international bluegrass.

You have a varied list of fans from other musical genres. Do you know who they are when they come up to you?

There is this band called Phish. They invited us to play at their festival. They had their festival at an old airport runway. We said we’ll just go up there and I said, “It looks like a lot of people there.” There were 77,000 people there, and I said “these guys must know what they’re doing.” I hardly knew who they were. This guy, Trey Anastasio, came up and said, “What can we do together?” I wasn’t sure if they knew anything we played. Trey said, “How about ‘Blue and Lonesome’?” This is a Hank Williams song, old Hank. Old Hank died in 1953 and he co-wrote the song with Bill Monroe. He asked, “Can we do that?” Yeah, man. He (Anastasio) had studied the music.

Whose idea was it to sell the flash drive of your performances right after each show?

It could have been Rob’s idea. He tapes everything we do. He keeps up with the live stuff. It’s great; you can take the show home with you.