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Bright Young Strings

Two traditions combine when the Lee Boys team up with the Travelin' McCourys

The Travelin' Mccourys (with Ronnie Mccoury, second from left) jam with the best of them.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 9/2/2009

Traffic Jam, with The Travelin' McCourys, the Lee Boys, Sam Bush, and others

Del McCoury was determined that Delfest, the weekend music extravaganza named after him, would not be just another bluegrass festival. So the bluegrass legend was pleased when the festival's May 2008 inaugural edition in Cumberland included the Lee Boys. No one was going to mistake the Lee Boys as just another string band, for the Florida group came out of the same African-American Sacred Steel tradition that gave us Robert Randolph ("Crying Holy," Music, May 13, 1998 ). The first McCoury to play with the Lee Boys at Delfest was Del's son Ronnie.

"I didn't really know much about them," Ronnie admits over the phone from Nashville. "Our manager Stan said, 'Can you come over and play with these people?' I didn't know what I was stepping into--I just rode over on a golf cart and walked onstage with an electric mandolin. They have a great young steel player named Roosevelt Collier, and we just started jamming off each other. That was the initial connection--me and Roosevelt. It was really powerful. When we threw the other guys from my band in, the same thing happened. We hung out together all weekend, and we played a late-night thing where we could just have fun."

Ronnie is not only the mandolinist in the Del McCoury Band, but also the leader of the Travelin' McCourys, the version of the Del McCoury Band without Del and with various guest guitarists (in Baltimore, Cody Kilby, longtime member of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder). The Travelin' McCourys have been touring with the Lee Boys since last winter, and the two bands team up again on Labor Day for the final set of the three-day Traffic Jam festival at Sonar. The groups may seem an unlikely match--the skinny bluegrass guys in their dark suits and hillbilly instruments, the stout gospel musicians in their baggy jeans and amps--but they get along famously. They've already laid down seven tracks in the studio.

"We actually have a lot in common," Ronnie insists. "They're a family steeped in a tradition, just like we are. They've been around sacred-steel music their entire lives, just like we've been around bluegrass. Steel guitar is usually a country instrument, so that seemed familiar to us. We all understand what it's like to be a family that plays music. We do a lot of gospel in bluegrass, and of course they do a lot of gospel in sacred steel. So I could tell where they were coming from."

The Del McCoury Band is not your typical bluegrass act, and the Lee Boys are not your usual gospel act. After all, how many gospel artists could release a DVD called Live at Bonnaroo? Recorded in 2008 and released last winter, the DVD is a straightforward document of the Miami sextet's set in one of the Tennessee festival's huge white tents. The songs, written by guitarist/leader Alvin Lee (no, not that Alvin Lee), are religious in their lyrics, but wild in their execution.

The group's signature tune "Let's Celebrate," which kicks off the DVD, is not far removed from Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" in its infectious pop melody and funk groove. Alvin Lee's chicken-scratch guitar establishes the boogie beat, reinforced by his nephews--bassist Alvin Cordy Jr. and drummer Earl Walker. The three Lee brothers--Alvin, Derrick, and Keith--belt out the sing-along vocals, but it's Collier, the third nephew, who delivers the improvisatory fireworks on pedal steel guitar that the Bonnaroo crowd has come for. As his left hand slides his silver bar across the strings in short, back-and-forth phrases and in long, dramatic swoops, his right hand claw-picks the strings in fast flurries of blues-rock notes. It may be gospel, but there's more than a little Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder mixed in.

Del McCoury takes a similarly broad view of his chosen genre. He may have won the biggest prize in bluegrass, the International Bluegrass Music Association's Entertainer of the Year Award, more times than anyone else (nine times between 1994 and 2004), but even at age 70 he's willing to reach beyond the genre's usual boundaries. To celebrate his milestone birthday in February, he released Celebrating 50 Years of Del McCoury (McCoury Music), a five-CD box set that includes songs by such honky-tonkers as George Jones and Roy Drusky and such rockers as John Sebastian and Delbert McClinton.

"Songs like those are something different," Ronnie says. "It gets us out of the same-old, same-old. Dad's just a great singer in any kind of music. I'm biased, of course, but it's true. I think it's interesting to my dad to try different things at this point in his career. It's also an opportunity to pick up new fans. We're in such a small corner of the world with our music that it's nice to take it to new audiences."

The box set is an odd project. The poor annotation makes it less than clear, but the songs come from all phases of Del's half-century career, from his early days with local bands in York County, Pennsylvania, and his early gig with Bill Monroe ("From the Hills," Feature, Jan. 12, 2000) to his decades as leader of the Dixie Pals and finally the band built around his two sons, Ronnie and the banjo-playing Rob. But these are not always the original performances. Whenever the master for the original recording was owned by someone else (i.e. all the recordings before 1999), Del re-recorded the song with his current band. The motivation may have been economic, but there are artistic benefits as well, for the current version of the Del McCoury Band is one of the greatest bluegrass ensembles in history.

When the three McCourys, joined by fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram, remake early songs such as "Are You Teasing Me" by the Louvin Brothers, "White House Blues" from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and "High on the Mountain" by Marylander Ola Belle Reed, they improve on the originals with their road-honed cohesion and virtuosity. Del is singing better, too, for he has stripped all the unnecessary embellishment and affectation from his tenor until the distilled essence remains.

Celebrating 50 Years of Del McCoury doesn't reflect Del's envelope-pushing collaborations with Steve Earle in 1999 nor with the New Orleans' Preservation Hall Jazz Band this year. Nor does it include last year's Moneyland (McCoury Music), an unusual protest album from the usually conservative world of bluegrass. The title track, written by John Herald, finds Del singing, "If you got big dough, you're freer than most, 'cause your freedom goes up with the size of your bank roll . . . in Moneyland." The disc finds Del, Marty Stuart, and Merle Haggard singing about the family farm, Patty Loveless about mine safety, and Dan Tyminski about rural health care. The music is framed by two "Fireside Chats" from Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

"We had been thinking about what we could do about the way things were going with the economy," Ronnie recalls. "We decided the middle American was getting the short end of the stick. I'm 42 years old, so I've never gone through a Depression, but my dad has and his family has. Both of my grandparents were farmers. We all had a strong feeling that something's got to change. Here's our small part--what else can we do?"

The box set does include Del's bluegrass arrangement of Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." As good as that studio track is, however, it can't touch the more evolved arrangement that the band now does in its live shows. You can hear that version on this year's terrific concert record, The Del McCoury Band Live from State College, PA.

"My Dad used to ride motorcycles; he had an Indian Chief," Ronnie explains. "So when this guy sent the Richard Thompson version to me, I said, 'This is great; we could really do something on this.' It had a great story, and the way Richard played the guitar was like a roll on the banjo. When we first recorded it, we had just learned the song, but audiences kept asking for it and eventually we got real comfortable with it. Now when we do it, we know when to hold back and when to push forward to help the story."

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