Del McCoury Band, Maria Carrelli
Memorial Hall, 1225 Elm St, Cincinnati, OH
8pm, Buy Tickets
You could almost say that the cover of the new release from the Del McCoury Band tells you everything you need to know: two giants of American music, both known far and wide by their first names, guitars in hand, looking out at the world with a bold gaze and a characteristic expression. But there’s a story behind Del And Woody (McCoury Music, street date 4/15/16), a collection of Woody Guthrie lyrics set to music by Del McCoury—and while its dozen songs speak eloquently for themselves, knowing how they came to be adds a dimension that’s sure to deepen every listener’s enjoyment.
“When he recorded with Steve Earle back in the late 90s, that’s when I really discovered Del McCoury,” says Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, guardian of the famed singer/songwriter’s unique legacy—and of an archive containing a treasure trove of memorabilia, recordings and, especially, notebooks filled with unknown song lyrics. By then, she’d already hit upon the idea of turning over some of those lyrics to artists with an affinity for Woody’s work and had seen the critically acclaimed result in Billy Bragg & Wilco’s Grammy-nominated Mermaid Avenue.
Still, it wasn’t until the Newport Folk Festival’s 50th anniversary in 2009 that she zeroed in on the bluegrass patriarch’s unique fitness for what became Del And Woody. “After hearing Del's show,” she recalls, “I remember thinking that if my dad had had a band, it would very possibly have sounded very much like Del’s. Woody's early bands in Oklahoma and Texas included banjos, bass, mandolins, guitars, fiddles and even spoons! It was called ‘hillbilly’ music back then, before there was ‘country.’” An invitation to Del to perform at a Woody Guthrie Centennial concert in Tulsa a couple of years later gave her the opportunity to hear him singing a few of her father’s songs—“I think Del’s ‘So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh’ is the best version I’ve ever heard,” she notes—and the deal was sealed.
“Everything Woody learned about music began with hillbilly music, with the Carter Family,” Guthrie says. “This early hillbilly sound is what turned him on. Family harmonies—and the idea of a family singing together, when his own family was all broken up and dispersed—were jumping off points to being in music in the first place. People forget how deeply rooted in and influenced by hillbilly music Woody was. After all the different journeys we’d taken in placing his lyrics in different contexts, it was like coming full circle back to the realization that these are basically hillbilly tunes.”
For McCoury, whose first full-time engagement in bluegrass music—service as lead singer and guitarist in Bill Monroe’s pace-setting band—came near the height of the folk revival’s interest in the style, Guthrie’s name was mostly unfamiliar, though his songs weren’t. “It took a while before I heard his name,” he remembers. “But then I started learning that so many of the songs I was hearing, from ‘Philadelphia Lawyer’ to ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ were his. So when Nora said she wanted to send me some lyrics, I already knew what a great writer he was. She sent me a few, then sent me some more, a few dozen in all.”
“When I read them, it seemed pretty easy to me to hear the music that would fit. Nora said, you can change some things if you want to,’ and I said no. He’s a great writer, and I do not want to change anything in his songs. I would just like to put a melody to these words so that maybe folks will accept the songs, and that’s what we did.”
Though it took the process years to come to fruition, the result is a project that, perhaps more than any other involving Woody’s lyrics, deserves to be called a collaboration. For while he’s not quite of Guthrie’s generation or background, the two masters share an unsurpassed breadth of experience, outlook, shared interests and common backgrounds. McCoury’s wry sense of humor is a perfect match for the Guthrie of “Californy Gold” and “Wimmen’s Hats” (the later written just one day after “This Land Is Your Land”); his abiding love for motor vehicles lends an easy familiarity to the narrative of “Cheap Mike”; his first-hand experience in the encounters of country people with city life gives “The New York Trains” an undeniable truth; and his affinity for working people and the role public policy can play in serving their needs—he is, after all, the artist who put together the compelling socio-musical collection Moneyland—informs the gently assertive “The Government Road” and the less gentle insistence of “Dirty Overhalls.”
That natural ability to tap into a shared sensibility extends to the rest of the Del McCoury Band as well—his sons Ron and Rob, International Bluegrass Music Association award-winners on their respective instruments (mandolin and banjo), fiddle player Jason Carter (another IBMA award winner) and the “new” (as in, celebrating 10 years with the band) member, bassist Alan Bartram. Already known for the effortless ability to honor the past while striding into the future, they bring a younger generation’s enthusiasm to the project.
Given the importance of family to this project—whether in Woody’s obvious affection for his own, in Nora’s dedication to keeping his artistry alive and appreciated, or in the McCourys’ collective career—it’s fitting to leave the last word here to Nora’s brother, acclaimed singer- songwriter Arlo Guthrie. “The entire album goes back to a place and time that these days, are an almost forgotten era,” he says. “But, Del’s high bluegrass voice brings it all back into focus…It’s amazing how little the human condition has changed, and good to be reminded that humor, attitude, and great music are timeless. Thank you, Del.”