As a writer, there are a lot of times you take assignments out of a sense of duty, obligation, or simply needing to pay the rent — and then there are the times when you have the opportunity to do something really special. For me, getting the chance to speak with bluegrass legend Del McCoury was one of those special times.
Del is doing press these days to promote his new album, American Legacies, which unites his band with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for an expert blend of standards, covers, and originals, performed with beautiful abandon. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also an important collection — a vibrant statement delivered by masters of their craft, and a joyous affirmation of American roots music.
One of our writers listened to the new album and said, “This is the sound of the America I want to live in.”
Did he really? [Laughs] Well, you know, it’s been a fun thing doing this, and we’re enjoying every bit of it. I don’t know how many dates we’ve played, but they were all sold out even before the record was released! I’m looking at next year already — I think that will hold a lot of work for this record, too. We’re doing the Letterman show soon. I forget the date, but…
How are they going to fit all of you on the stage?
[Laughs] Maybe I’ll stand on Letterman’s desk!
This collaboration between your band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is one of those projects you hear about and just light up, but it’s such a perfect match that it also seems like something that should have happened a long time ago. How did it come together?
Yeah, you’re right about that. Well, my distributor called some time ago and asked if I’d be interested in making an appearance on the Katrina benefit album that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band did last year, and of course, I said I’d love to. I didn’t have anything to do during the period we marked off, so I went down and did at least three songs with them. They released two on the album, and in the meantime, somebody suggested getting our bands together to see what they sounded like.
So we did that too. We went to the Preservation Hall and played, and I think we recorded a few things. We didn’t release any of them, but they sounded good, so while we were in California for a show, we headed into San Francisco for a day and cut 14 songs. [Laughter] I mean, bang! We just recorded a whole bunch of stuff. Some were our things, some were their things, and they all just came out great.
That’s a great story. I didn’t realize the whole thing was cut in a day.
Well, now I think we spent two days. [Laughter] Most of it was done the first day, but we had a few things left to do. I’ll tell you a funny story — I think it was late the second day, and me and my boys were still there, but most of their band had gone back to the hotel. We decided to do one more number, just in case, and we ran through something I’d been working on for awhile, the song “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby.” Anyway, their saxophone player was still there, reading a newspaper, and we called over to him: “Hey, Clint! You wanna play on this?” So he grabbed his sax and went through it with us a couple of times, and he had it. So we said “Look, now that you know it so well, you’re gonna kick it off.” [Laughs]
We came together in different ways like that. You know, I used to be a banjo player years ago — I started out on banjo before I moved to guitar. And I’d written this banjo tune that I never recorded, “Banjo Frisco” — my son Ron covered it in later years — but I decided to see what the Preservation guys could do with it. They didn’t want to play it as fast as the recorded version, so we slowed it down, and boy, those horns just made it a completely different tune.
We created something different together. You know, we were on stage recently, talking back and forth, and Ben Jaffe and I realized we didn’t have a name for this music. Someone yelled out that maybe we should call it jazzgrass, but then the piano player yelled out, “Nope! We’re calling it Mardi Grass!” [Laughter] That might stick, mightn’t it?
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It should — that’s perfect. I’d like to talk about your recording philosophy. You’ve released a lot of albums, and for some artists, once they reach a certain point, that process is no longer special — they just want to take a snapshot of a moment in time and be done with it. What’s your approach?
Some people like to build their albums around a theme, but when I record, I like to find the most different things I can think of, so you have different moods. That’s the way I like to see or hear a show, you know? Different speeds, tempos, keys — love songs and murder ballads. [Chuckles] We don’t do ’em all. But that’s how I look at it. And it’s easier to do it that way here in Nashville, because once people find out you’re recording, they just bombard you with demos. It makes me lazy about writing, you know? I just think, “Man, I don’t have to labor over songs, ’cause I can just get ’em for free!” [Laughs] Great songs and I’m glad to record them, and every writer is going to bring something different.
And how do you feel when you think about the future of bluegrass? Are you encouraged?
I am, because if something is good, it’ll never fade away. It doesn’t matter how you put it down — it’s gonna grow. I don’t worry about it at all.
You know, years ago, we tried to form an organization. This was in the mid-’60s, and nobody could get along. It took another 20 years to get the International Bluegrass Music Association together. But once it did happen, from that time on — you’ve got to get organized before you can grow, and now we get together every fall.
At this point, how much do you still devote yourself to your craft as a musician? How much time do you spend practicing?
Well, you know, I should spend more time on guitar. But I don’t. [Laughs] We’re really busy playing now on the road, so we practice on stage. And if we’re going to record, I’ll rehearse with the band. In fact, right now we’re in the middle of recording an album — you know, I worked for Bill Monroe in the early ’60s, and he recorded a lot of songs that he never played live. I thought I’d like to do some of those songs, because his birthday’s coming up — he’d be 100 in September — and I thought if I was ever going to do any kind of tribute, now would be the time. So let’s see, we were just in the studio, and I think we did 14 songs. We didn’t cover any of the obvious ones, like “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” because those have been done to death.
It sounds like everything with American Legacies fell together pretty easily, but how much discussion did you have about song selection beforehand?
There was none! [Laughs] We knew were were going to record together, that’s about as far as it got. I mean, everyone had something or other in mind, and that’s how songs ended up being recorded: “Hey, why don’t we try this one?” “Okay.” I think I wrote two songs, and then Ben Jaffe from Preservation wrote one — I don’t know if he wrote it that day, but it was shortly before — for the album. “One More ‘Fore I Die.” We did some old standards, too.
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And what was the recording like? It sounds like everyone was in the same room.
We were! They have a place there in San Francisco that they call Preservation Hall West. It’s an old mission — it’s actually in the Mission District. We had to have microphones for our instruments, each individual one, because the horns are so loud — they play into a few microphones, but from a distance, not like us. And that’s how we recorded. Having them stand back like that gave us a little separation — not as much as my engineer wanted. [Laughs] He was ready to pull his hair out. We did have pretty good separation, but hey, if we’d wanted to overdub, forget it. It just was what it was, the same way it came through the microphones. It definitely made less work for us in the end.
Your music is obviously strongly traditional, but you’ve also branched out in a lot of ways over the last several years — both musically, covering newer artists, and from a business standpoint, by doing things like selling USB drives with concert recordings after your shows.
Yeah, yeah. Well, all music is related, you know? I didn’t realize it when I was a kid. Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs were kind of my heroes, and I’m sure that Bill Monroe is the father of bluegrass, and it all came together in the ’40s. Earl Scruggs was his last missing ingredient, and of course, Bill didn’t know that Earl was what he was looking for. He was experimenting with different things in the beginning, and it just all came together with Earl. They just happened to be on a major label, and they happened to have a big radio station, and we’re fortunate we can still hear that stuff, because they were part of something that made sure the music didn’t fade away.
So it’s funny how it came together. Chubby Wise, Bill’s fiddle player, told me that Bill taught him how to play what Bill was singing. He had no idea what he was supposed to be doing, but Bill showed him — “No, that isn’t what I’m singing. Play this.” So he was the first bluegrass fiddler, and he came from swing. All these guys with their individual backgrounds, coming together to make a great sound. And I thought in the beginning that the music was just perfect, but I didn’t realize that what created it was other forms of music.
In my later years, I came to realize that music is just music. Jazz, Mexican music, whatever — there aren’t any boundaries, really. As long as it’s good music, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. So I set about trying to expand the boundaries of my own music. There are so many things we can do.