- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 23, 2005

“I’m a guitar-pickin,’ bluegrass-singin,’ never-grow-up boy,” sings bluegrass stalwart Del McCoury in his twangy tenor. That voice, which Mr. McCoury brings to the Barns at Wolf Trap Tuesday and Wednesday, has, over the last 20 years, come to epitomize the “high lonesome sound” of bluegrass.

“Never Grow Up Boy,” written by Mr. McCoury and Harley Allen for the latest Del McCoury Band album, “The Company We Keep,” encapsulates the life of a traveling bluegrass musician. It offers small apologies for being away from home so often, but the apologies can’t mask the satisfaction the singer has in doing what he loves.

That’s clear, too, when Mr. McCoury talks about how it feels to be at the top of the bluegrass ladder after 40 years on the road — and he says it feels the same as it always has.

“I still like to entertain people,” he says. “I like to talk to people from the stage and find out what they want to hear. I still do requests. We never have a program or anything. When we get on stage we have no idea what we’re going to do.”

Since almost the beginning of his solo career in the late ‘60s, he’s been taking requests and trying to play what people want. Originally they were songs from the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, for whom Mr. McCoury worked in the mid-‘60s. But after Mr. McCoury recorded his first album in 1967, the requests started coming for his own material.



“I can go back to songs from every record since then,” he says. “It’s probably the ones that people most request. They keep them fresh in my mind because they request them.”

Of course, someone might ask him for a song he doesn’t remember, but that’s a chance he likes to take.

That never-grow-up boy’s love of a challenge may be part of what keeps the 66-year-old singer on the road. Having the younger energy of his two sons, Rob and Ronnie, in the band with him probably doesn’t hurt either.

It certainly doesn’t hurt the music. Rob’s playing on the banjo and Ronnie’s on the mandolin have won many individual awards — and the Del McCoury Band has been the International Bluegrass Music Association Top Bluegrass Band of the Year for several years running.

Having a growing young audience also may help. In the past five or six years, along with the usual bluegrass festivals and concerts, the band has performed on the same stage as bands like Phish, Leftover Salmon and the Yonder Mountain String Band.

Mr. McCoury is impressed by how much these young jam band musicians know about his music and earlier bluegrass players.

“I couldn’t believe that they knew about hard-core bluegrass,” Mr. McCoury says. “And they all do. Them bands know about it. They have their own take on it. When they go to play it, they’re playing it their way. You get your style from the songs you chose to record through the years without realizing it.”

Mr. McCoury’s basic sound — developed through recording 17 albums in 38 years — still comes from the same instrumentation that Mr. Monroe had. The highlights come from both the playing of the McCoury sons and fiddler Jason Carter and from the songs either written or selected by Mr. McCoury himself.

He usually sifts through 100 songs or more looking for just the right one.

“I think it’s a lot like people who play the lottery and they hit. You listen to all these songs and they’re all so bad and all of a sudden, bang, there is one.”

Mr. McCoury also writes many of the songs he records. For this latest album he tried something new; he wrote with partners for the first time. Mr. Allen and Don Schlitz are two who have songs on this album.

“All my life I wrote songs, but I thought it was kind of a private thing. I found out it was really an easy thing,” Mr. McCoury says.

“I could remember back when I was writing. I could do a verse and a chorus, then a second verse got really hard to come up with. Then the third was almost impossible. I threw a lot of songs away. Then I found — well now, if you’ve got a partner, when you get stuck he’s right there with an idea.”

• • •

Tomorrow night at the State Theatre in Falls Church, the District’s veteran blues and roots-rock band The Nighthawks teams up again with one of the great unsung guitar heroes of Chicago blues, Hubert Sumlin.

Lead guitarist for the ultimate Chicago blues legend Howlin’ Wolf for more than 20 years, Mr. Sumlin put the razor edge in such Wolf recordings as “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Killing Floor” and “Spoonful.” It wasn’t just Wolf’s voice and energy that inspired blues-rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Cream, and the Doors; it was Mr. Sumlin’s unique guitar.

Now in his 70s, Mr. Sumlin still has the magic in his fingers. It’s a perfect fit with the vitality and drive that characterizes The Nighthawks, who are synonymous with D.C. blues music and have been firing up audiences for more than 30 years. A 2003 performance at the State Theatre with Mr. Sumlin resulted in a DVD that has drawn high praise from critics and fans. Expect tomorrow night to be more of the same.

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