The Travelin McCourys are Ronnie and Rob McCoury, Jason Carter, Alan Bartram and Cody Kilby. The son of bluegrass legend, Del McCoury, Ronnie has spent his entire adult life on the road, first with his father, and then with his brother and band. We were able to chat while the band stopped in Nashville about the state of the bluegrass community, touring down south, and future of bluegrass music.
Connor Hayes: The Travelin’ McCourys are about to hit a good couple of Florida stops, what’s the best part about touring the state?
Ronnie McCoury:“The first time I was there was in the ’80s, for years I was playing bluegrass festivals with my father, and of course down there, bluegrass festivals are in the winter. Most of the crowd is and was the older crowd, but around 15 years ago, when we started to get down there, we started to have younger audiences. That was a big change, I just wasn’t used to it in that part of the country. Now as the Travelin’ Mccourys, we’ve been hitting Florida dates every year, and starting to build something down there. We’ve attracted a really diverse age range, and I like that. You have to have the youth, and it’s respectable to have some older folks there as well.
Your Suwannee Hulaween 2016 set was pretty reflective of that…
You’re right about that. Before they started coming in with the varied music festivals, I remember playing [Spirit of Suwannee Music Park] in the ’80s with my dad, most of the crowd then was RVers, and people living there. Getting back down there and watching it grow has been pretty cool. We’ve played Wanee, Suwannee Hulaween, and all of those festivals down there. Who doesn’t love Suwannee? It’s one of my favorite places in the country for a music festival.
Speaking of the older crowd, and of course it’s a hot topic with Dead & Co’s rescheduled Florida dates coming up, can we expect any other Grateful Ball sets other than the Fairfield date in March?
I know there are some on the books. We’re going to be out in Austin, doing a festival, but other than that, I’m not sure. We didn’t know how it would do, how long it would last, and I can’t say I’m totally surprised, but man, its really cool to know people want to see it. It’s a lot of fun doing those shows, I’ve always loved the music. It’s one thing to listen to it and enjoy it, it’s another thing to play it, and learn it. There’s such a kinship, to me, with the music that we play.
Harkening back to Anastasia Music Fest, with Jeff Austin and all the other showcase musicians, you really do improvise the Dead’s material, just like it was meant to be, and I think that rings true to a lot of folks, both old and young.
I appreciate that. The thing about their songs, is those guys wrote great material, and when they did cover others, it was usually older stuff as well. My father was the first one to bring the song “Dark Hollow,” to the mainstream touring audience. He led with it on tour with Bill Monroe. The lead singer always got to do one song solo per set, and that was the song he chose because it was sort of a Baltimore area song, and my dad was playing music there before he went with Monroe. He took the song out for awhile, but in 1963, he played in Berkeley, California. Jerry Garcia was there, and likely Bobby Weir was there too, and I’m sure–from what I’ve heard from people close–that’s how the song got into their repertoire. It’s cool how the songs they wrote, they truly made their own, and the way the material evolved, that’s what we are emulating. I come from a pretty strict bluegrass background, that’s very set, you start with an instrument, then sing a verse, sing a chorus, another instrument plays, then another verse, chorus, instrument, etc. Most songs are three to four minutes long, so for me, to be able to experiment is so much fun. I have a great respect for their songs, so when Jeff Austin and his band get up there, who are all phenomenal, its great to just be able to figure it out as we go.
Another memorable set was when your own son, Evan, joined you and Rob, and Del, its really cool to see a family of that many generations with that much talent. Can we expect that family set to happen again in the coming months?
RM: Well the last tour my dad and I did, was a West Coast tour we called it the “Get on the Bus Tour”, got on a plane out to California, and Evan went with us. We did two weeks, up through the coast, back down, then went over to Colorado, hit Aspen, Steamboat, and Denver, and he played every night with us. When we play here in Nashville, my father is a Grand Ole’ Opry member, and he always plays with us, on the Opry. He’s building his band, the Broomstix, and they’ve been down to Florida a couple times. We’re all proud of him. He’s working on what they want to do, it’s a lot different from what I do, but music is all related.
Speaking of family reunions, the talk of the town is the Bender Jamboree, out in Vegas. Del will be there, so will you guys, as well as a lot of western-based bands. It’s a rather long run, all-inclusive, in Las Vegas no less, what are you most excited for?
They’ve got some great advertising, seems like everyone I know is going to be there. My dad has a set, we’re doing a Travelin’ set, a whole bunch of stuff. We just did the Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas, this year, for the first time out there, as the Travelin’ McCourys. It was a Grateful Ball, in Vegas, and man, what a room, it was beautiful! It sounded great, they really took care of us out there, really nice. I always wonder if we’re gonna get anybody [to attend], we’ve not played here before, this IS Las Vegas too, you know? But sure enough, we had a really good crowd, and I’m sure there were a lot of out-of-towners, but a lot of local folks too. I’m really excited to do the Bender, they’ve spared no expense in getting a lineup.
Earlier you mentioned how music evolves, how do you currently see the bluegrass scene evolving, and who are some of the people you are seeing as the wiz kids of 2018?
Well, our booking agent sent me a clip of this guy, three years ago now, and he had a video clip of him, and it was Billy Strings. He’s got a heck of a future, he’s proven it easily. I feel a lot of kinship, because he’s kind of an old soul, got a lot of Doc Watson influence, and that older stuff, while also doing anything newer and beyond. He’s my breakout guy.
On a last note, another group that has really modernized and brought new folks into the bluegrass community has been Greensky Bluegrass, what do you think of them?
Yeah! You know we have Delfest, for 10 years now, going into the 11th, and those guys have played almost every year. They’re from Michigan originally, and we did a show up in Kalamazoo, back in 2003 or so, and this fellow came up to me, and for his birthday present his girlfriend had gotten him tickets to the show. That man was Dave Bruzza. He came up, and he was just really excited, and really young. Next thing I know, he’s in this band called Greensky, and they eventually got to Delfest. Just to watch them evolve, its truly amazing. Its nice to see the instruments I grew up with, bluegrass instruments, continuing the tradition, and evolving at the same time, and to be able to sell tickets. I’m proud of them.
Article by Connor Hayes
Photograph by Marisa Muldoon