“This is a waltz ... it’s kind of slow, kind of sad,” Ronnie McCoury says as he cradles his mandolin and begins plinking a cascade of mournful notes to bluegrass legend Bill Monroe’s “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz” in an impromptu performance for the Hendersonville High journalism class.
Accompanied by his son Heaven on acoustic guitar, he sits hunched over his instrument, his eyes fixed on his left hand, his fingers gliding over the fretboard. He wears a Hawaiian-style shirt and jeans, and his dark hair has a touch of gray at the temples.
At 52, McCoury is among the best mandolin players in the world with a list of accolades to prove it. Last February, he won a Grammy, the music industry’s highest honor, for Best Bluegrass Album with his group The Travelin’ McCourys.
He performs a second song for students, this time an original called “Dawg Gone” which is much faster than the Monroe tune and inspired by West Coast mandolinist and former Grateful Dead collaborator David Grisman. As he plays, his fingers fly and his feet tap.
That McCoury chose these two songs is telling. Monroe and Grisman are two of his musical heroes; both men shaped his sound and, to large degree, his life.
But his greatest influence, professionally and personally, is his father, 80-year-old Del McCoury, a two-time Grammy winner whom Allmusic.com describes as “among the most distinguished practitioners of traditional bluegrass and the epitome of the ‘high lonesome sound’ for over three decades.”
Ronnie McCoury began recording and touring with his dad’s Del McCoury Band when he was just 14. Since then, he’s been the International Bluegrass Music Association’s mandolin player of the year eight consecutive years (1993-2000); he’s recorded with country stars such as Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, Martina McBride, Vince Gill and Dierks Bentley; he’s made a Grammy-nominated album with pal Grisman (“Mandolin Extravaganza”) and a solo disc with his brother Rob (“Heartbreak Town); he’s co-produced several records, including alt-country singer Steve Earle’s 1999 album “The Mountain”; and all the while he’s toured and recorded with the Del McCoury Band and, since 2009, with his own Travelin’ McCourys, which also includes his brother Rob on banjo.
He sat for a recent interview at HHS, from which his sons Heaven and Josh graduated and where his daughter Emma is a sophomore. He had just returned from weekend shows in Minnesota and California, and only the night before he had performed on the Grand Ole Opry.
Q: The big news, of course, is the Grammy. That’s the latest thing. Would you talk about that a little bit in terms of what it is like to win a Grammy with your group rather than with your father’s group?
A: Sure. So, I’ll give you guys a little insight about me first. This is a mandolin. It’s an eight-string instrument. I started playing it when I was 14-years-old in my father’s band. My father’s name is Del McCoury and we play bluegrass music. I grew up in Pennsylvania. In 1992 we moved to Nashville to try to do better, and we sure did. It all worked out for us so far. I’m 52 years old, so I’ve been playing music with my dad — still playing music with my dad - all these years. We have a lot of records and had the opportunity to be nominated for Grammys before. We have two Grammys with my dad’s band. My father is 80-years-old, he just turned 80. So, when he was 70, he started thinking about his life and his longevity and if something would happen to his health, if something would happen to his voice. My brother also plays the banjo, so the two of us have been in the band all of our lives and he wanted us to be prepared if something happened to him, so we started another band on the side. And my last name is McCoury and we call ourselves The Travelin’ McCourys because we do a lot of traveling. And so we’ve basically been together about 10 years and all those years we didn’t really put out a record until a year ago. We put a record out last year and somehow it won a Grammy. So, it’s pretty exciting because I have backed my father and been behind him through all these years, and for us to kind of go ahead and step ahead of him a little bit and win a Grammy is exciting.
Q: A Grammy is the highest achievement in music?
A: It is. In the music world, yeah, because you’re voted by the peers in your industry. So, it’s not like, say, she can vote for me or you can vote for me. It’s by your peers.
Q: You must be proud of how far you’ve come.
A: Yeah, really proud because, you know, when I was your age in school like this I had already made my mind up of what I wanted to do. I was lucky that I wanted to do this because I started at 14 and I started under the wing of my dad, too, so I always had that crutch. It’s like that for anybody that works in a family business. Move on into a family business you can kind of have that crutch. So, I was very lucky to have that and then, you know, you just… as the years go by you just keep doing what you do and you work harder. It’s that saying, ‘It takes 10,000 hours to be good at what you do,’ and I’ve crossed that line several times. I was super proud to be involved with my father’s band when he won the Grammy the first time. We went out before (to the Grammy Awards ceremony) after being nominated and didn’t win, so you know that feeling. When you finally do win it’s so exciting.
Q: Who is the most influential person in your life?
A: My dad because he has gone on to become so well-regarded in the industry. He’s 80-years-old, but he’s still very strong. He’s like a 60-year-old or something. His singing is very powerful, his playing is very powerful. You get to that age and things start to go. I’m sure you’ve had grandparents, maybe their health or their mind … they don’t have their health or vice versa. I’m very lucky to have that. He’s my number one hero. And then the instrument that I play, it’s a mandolin - not a guitar - it’s kind of a different type of instrument that you haven’t seen very much. And the guy that was my musical hero for playing this instrument is the man that invented bluegrass music and his name is Bill Monroe. And Bill Monroe started this music; it’s a very young music as far as music goes. I mean, you’ve heard of Beethoven, Bach, and people like that from the 1600s and 1700s. He started this style of music we play in the early forties, the 1940s. So, it’s fairly new music. His name is Bill Monroe and he lived in Nashville, lived in Goodlettsville actually. My father kind of got his start by playing with him in the early 1960s and that was a big help for my dad. So, he’s my musical hero. But there are other guys. I could tell you their names, you probably wouldn’t know them, but there’s a guy on the West Coast, he plays the same instrument. His name is David Grisman and in the 1970s he kind of started a form of jazz music with the mandolin that really hadn’t been done before. He’s a real character - long hair and all, and they call his music “Dawg music” - D-A-W-G.
Q: We’ve got a couple Grateful Dead fans in here, so they may know of David Grisman.
A: Do you? He (Grisman) recorded with the Grateful Dead and the lead singer, the main guy in the band, Jerry Garcia. They recorded quite a few albums together, just the two of them. But he’s (Grisman) one of my heroes. When I was your age, I’d say I played mandolin and a lot of my friends would say, ‘Oh, you mean like Led Zeppelin, or like the Grateful Dead’ because there’s mandolin in that. There was a guy named Rod Stewart, another rock singer, that had a lot of mandolin in his music. So, when I play it you might hear something familiar.
Q: But you actually started on violin.
A: I did.
Q: Two years on violin?
A: Yes, I did at the age of 9 in the school orchestra.
Q: Why did you move away from the violin?
A: Well, for two years I was in the orchestra. It moved very slow for me. I was a kid, I wanted things to move faster. I felt like I could learn faster. And we worked months on one piece and I just kind of got bored with it. I was also very involved with sports. We had a big recital — orchestra recital — and I had a basketball game. It was a big game, and I chose to go to this game and play. And after that I just kind of put the orchestra aside. The thing about the mandolin is it’s tuned just like a violin, and the fingering is the same as a violin. So, it was very easy for me to move to this instrument. Instead of a bow I use a pick. And my father had a band at the time and he did not have a mandolin player in the band. There was already a fiddle player.
Q: What was your first performance like?
A: My first performance I was scared to death. I’d only played this instrument for six months. And I was just mainly playing rhythm because I hadn’t been playing too long. My dad put me in the band and I would say it was sink or swim. So, it made me want to work harder all the time. The first time I was on stage I remember being really nervous, really scared. People were looking at me, and I was wondering if I’d made a mistake. But that all goes away. You do still get butterflies sometimes. Last night we played at the Grand Ole Opry and there were 5,000 people. I don’t know if anyone here has been to the Grand Ole Opry and seen the show, how it runs. It’s the longest running live radio show in the world. No other show has been on the radio consecutively like this. So, you go out and you only have three songs, maybe one song, and you have to really shine. You can’t mess up. You have to be right on. And there are 5,000 people out there, so you still get a little bit of butterflies.
Q: How did you get over the nervousness?
A: Number one for me was always the crutch of my dad. Standing beside my dad, I was like ‘He’s not nervous.’ So that always helped me, and number two is just doing it so many years. It’s just like anything you do, whatever it is you do, the more you do it the better you get at it. At least you’re supposed to get better.
Q: You worked with your dad for so long. Was it hard to make your own name?
A: Yeah, in the beginning because my father has such a prominent name in this business. Basically, The Travelin’ McCourys are my dad’s band without him. So, in the beginning it was a lot of, they’d call us the ‘Del-less McCoury Band’ - just jokingly but, you know, you have to make your own way.
Q: What would you say is your greatest motivation?
A: Probably my family, my kids. And that’s also the hardest part, to be gone so much. But, you know, you just want to make them proud. I mean, I’m proud of my dad, proud of what he’s done. I’d like that to be the same thing I pass on. You do it for your family and for the love of it. I’ll give you an example of this weekend. This past weekend, I got up at 5 and had to be on a plane at 7. We flew to St. Louis, waited and hour, flew to Minneapolis, and we had to go four hours in a vehicle because there are really no airports where we were going. We went up to the edge of Lake Superior. It was only about 30, 40 miles to Canada. And there’s a ski resort called Lutsen - Lutsen, Minnesota. And they put on this show for two nights. Almost all the people that came came to see us play, and then to ski, too. It wasn’t like we were the side entertainment, I’ll put it that way. And we did that for two nights, and we ended on Saturday night at midnight and we had what they call a loadout. That means get all your equipment and all your suitcases and loadout. And we got in a vehicle and had to go for a 6 a.m. flight out of Minneapolis. It was a four-hour drive back, so we took four hours in the vehicle and if you leave at 12:45 you get there at 4:45 and your plane leaves in an hour and fifteen minutes. You have no room for error - none. Well, we got pulled over by a cop for speeding and it could have taken forever but the guy just looked at the license and let us go. So, we got to the airport and our sound guy opened up the front door of the van. He had his phone on his lap and it fell down. It went right through a water grate into the water. There’s a big grate there that catches water on this curb and it went right down in the water. So, we had to pick the grate up, get down in the hole, get this phone that’s soaked in water because you know, it’s what happens, right? Luckily, it still worked. We got on the plane, flew to Denver, had an hour. From Denver we flew to Burbank, California, and then we got rental vehicles and drove three hours north for a show on the coast, right on the water. So, we didn’t see a bed that night. You know, you do what you have to do.
Q: What’s a typical week like, the schedule? You’ll leave on Thursday and you’ll return home on Monday?
A: Yeah, this Thursday it’s another 7 o’clock flight or something like that. We fly to Austin, Texas, and we’re in a festival down there. Then the next morning we have to fly to Bozeman, Montana, which is a long way away. And we play two nights again at a ski resort in Big Sky, Montana, which is on the other end of Yellowstone National Park. People tour differently. If you’re the big country stars, rock ‘n’ roll stars, pop stars, they go out for six weeks, eight weeks, or longer. And they’ll get in the bus, do the whole thing. We own our own bus, we’ve done all that. But we like to be home as much as we can. So, for us to be home as much as we can, we have to fly. We leave on a Thursday and I’ll be home Monday. And then I have a couple days home with my family. The longest we’ve ever been gone is six weeks. There was a movie called ‘Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?’ And there was a tour that went along with this thing. It was called ‘Down from the Mountain.’ It was in the early 2000s. We went out for six weeks, and I just really don’t want to do that again. I would rather take our chances and fly.
Q: Would you like to go out of the country and play?
A: I have, I’ve been all through Europe a couple times - Scotland, Ireland, England, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Germany, Austria, France. I’ve never been to Spain or Italy. I’ve been to Japan five times.
Q: And all those countries have an appreciation of American bluegrass?
A: Yeah, they do. It’s amazing, they say that in the Czech Republic there are more bluegrass fans than any country in the world besides the U.S. It’s just really loved in that country. There used to be a lot more in Japan, too.
Q: How was your experience coming into the music industry at only 14?
A: Well, the kind of music I play, back then it didn't seem like there were as many young people into it. Now, there are some incredible young people that pick up these instruments because we don’t rely on electronics. It’s just you and your instrument, and it’s hard to do. It’s hard to play. Kids like challenges, and I think that’s why we have more and more people playing the kind of music that we’re playing. It’s a challenge. When I started, there were a lot of older folks playing this kind of music and they’d just accept you. They’d take you in and they’d want to help you. I didn’t have the music industry like here in Nashville. We grew up in a foreign country (Pennsylvania). It was pretty laid back. So as far as when I entered it that way, I just felt like I had a lot of help from people that wanted to see you do well. It wasn’t cutthroat.
Q: Can you make it in a place like that or do you have to come to Nashville or L.A. or New York to make it in the music business?
A: I think then you had to, back then. Now there’s YouTube and everything is so connected with phones and computers that people can be a star sitting in their bedroom. I think they could be found that way but it’s not easy. Things like ‘American Idol’ have, my goodness what it’s done for people that have been involved. Kelly Clarkson, a Hendersonville girl. They found her. Carrie Underwood, she was found doing this. Huge stars.
Q: Do you feel like you grew up in the public eye?
A: Yeah, I guess so. Like I said, this is a small world - bluegrass is a small world compared to pop music or anything like that. It also depends on where you live, I’d say. If you become a pop star, it’s got to be really hard to live your life. You’re constantly being viewed. With what we’re doing and the kind of music I play, it’s not like that. It’s appreciated, but it’s not … you can live in Nashville, you can live in Hendersonville. I mean Johnny Cash used to go to the Kroger and nobody would bother him, and he was a big star around the world. Like I said, it may depend on where you live. If you live in L.A., I imagine there’s paparazzi everywhere, just looking for anything they can get. But I’m just a normal guy, and all my buddies I grew up with, we played sports, nobody played music. I was the only guy that played music. Sixteen, I got a car just like everybody. We listened to rock ‘n’ roll music, even though I didn’t play it. I felt very, very normal.
Q: When you were learning the mandolin, did you have the benefit, because of your dad, of having people coming by the house who were great, established musicians who gave you tips and helped you out?
A: Well, it wasn’t as much coming to the house. We lived pretty much out in the middle of nowhere, but we did play every weekend, in the summer especially. My father could have come to Nashville and done really whatever he wanted to, he was that talented. And he chose to raise a family and have music as a part-time thing. So, when I was growing up, he had all kinds of jobs, but he was a guy that always liked to be outside because he grew up on a farm. My dad was a logger, liked working in the woods cutting down trees. Hard work. And that’s what he wanted to do, he liked doing that. But he played music on the weekends. Our mother worked in the factory. On the weekends when we’d go somewhere to play music, there’d be other bands, a couple bands at the same event. So yes, I was around a lot of great musicians there. Even if I didn’t ask, I could watch, and I could see what they were doing.
Q: Can you describe how you come up with your music?
A: It’s usually just something that might trigger it, it’s a thought or something from real life. I don’t write a whole lot of songs, but I’ve written quite a few. And instrumentals, which is just the music, it just comes from sitting there and playing and kind of noodling around.
Q: What do you do to get inspired to write songs?
A: Well, when you try to write a song, you write about yourself, it’s very personal. I’ve written songs about, like, the passing of a friend, and you get your thoughts out that way. And then you can write with other people, but when you write with other people, it’s not as personal. It’s their thoughts and your thoughts, and I’ve done quite a bit of that, too.
Q: Are there some songwriters you really admire?
A: Vince Gill, he’s a great songwriter. He plays in The Eagles now, and he’s got the gig - he doesn’t have to pay for a bus, doesn’t have to pay for a band, just shows up and does his part. There’s a guy named John Prine, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of John Prine. He’s got a great sense of humor. I like all kinds of music. I listen to all kinds of writers.
Q: What do you think of the pop stuff you hear now?
A: It’s kind of like some of the country stuff, I don’t really care for it. A lot of country music these days, I don’t care for a lot of the topics they sing about, like ‘I’m more country than you are, and this is why.’ And ‘She loves my truck,’ a lot of that stuff I just can’t relate to. There is some pop music I recorded because of my daughter. She told me about a song that she was playing in her bedroom one night and I was listening to it. He goes by the name of Passenger. It’s called ‘Let Her Go.’ As soon as we recorded it and released it, we got a note from Passenger, who said, ‘Congratulations guys, and good luck’. Simple. We did our bluegrass take on it, and it’s gotten a lot of attention.
Q: That seemed to be a trend in bluegrass for a while, where you’d see Led Zeppelin’s music or AC/DC’s music done as bluegrass. Are you a purist, or are you okay with that?
A: I’m okay with some of that, and I know guys that know AC/DC and they love it, that we’ve done their music that way. Through the years I’ve gotten to be friends with Led Zeppelin guys. John Paul Jones is the bass player in the band, and he also plays the mandolin, and that’s how I met him. He came to one of our shows. Robert Plant is the singer for Led Zeppelin, and he came to Nashville and made a record with Alison Krauss. They asked my father to come down and sing with them, and my father was like, ‘I don’t know who Led Zeppelin is.’ I invited him (Robert Plant) to the Opry, he came to the Grand Ole Opry one night. I met a lot of people at the Opry - Arnold Schwarzenegger, well I saw him, I didn’t meet him, he was there one night. Tom Hanks was just there, we met Tom Hanks. Incredible. The nicest guy, so genuine. He wanted his picture with us. Instead of us wanting one with him, he wanted it with us. He loved hearing our show that night.
Q: How does producing records compare with writing and recording? Is it a very different experience?
A: Well, with producing you have to be more in-tune with everything, and if there’s a band that you’re producing, then you have to be the one to give them direction. That’s what a producer basically does. They help find songs; some bands don’t have songs. So, they’ll help find songs, a producer does that. The producer will help the band if they have questions about anything, or harmonies, or whatever. You’re supposed to be the one that kind of helps them, kind of babies the project along. And I’ve worked a lot with my dad producing records, so it’s pretty easy because he knows what he wants to do, and you just kind of help him get that point across. And then you do stuff like mixing … you have to bring certain musicians up or bring them down if they’re playing too loudly so they don’t take over the whole project, or you make two or three voices blend together so one is not louder than the other. You have to be able to hear certain things. That’s mixing, and it’s part of producing.
Q: Would you describe bluegrass as a combination of different types of music?
A: Yeah, it’s got folk music in it, it’s got jazz music in it, it’s got gospel music in it. It’s got elements of a lot of music in it.
Q: Do you guys (Ronnie and his son Heaven) play together a lot?
A: Not as much as I’d like because I travel a lot, but he plays with me sometimes on the road and with my dad. He’s traveled with The Travelin’ McCourys, but he has a band, too (Heaven’s band is also based in this area and is called The Broomestix).
Q: And his music is entirely different from yours?
A: (Ronnie) Totally different.
A: (Heaven) Yeah, there are some connections with jazz and old rock ‘n’ roll, but we’re really an R&B, jazz, funk kind of thing.
Q: Would you ever do a show together, like your band and his band?
A: Well, we have a festival, and it happens Memorial Day weekend. It’s in Cumberland, Maryland, it’s called DelFest. This is our 12th year this year. The Broomestix have played there on one of the stages, and I get up and play with them on a couple of tunes sometimes.
Q: What do you like to do for fun?
A: I try to spend as much time as I can with these guys (his children), whatever they want to do. I still like sports; I like to watch sports. I work outside, mow the yard, just normal stuff. Really, I just kind of get caught up in life. I travel so much that when I’m home, I like to be home. I don’t like to go to Nashville, go out at night, stuff like that. I did that in my twenties.
Q: What advice would you have for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
A: Well, good luck. No, like him? (nods to Heaven). He’s kind of cut his own way here with The Broomestix. They were all HHS folk. He’s got his own band and they all started right here. He could tell you more about that than I can. But my advice is that you just have to stay focused, you have to do it, you just have to continue doing what you do. And I would say criticism is welcomed. People that don’t want to hear any criticism … I think you have to welcome it. When someone says something, especially if it’s a peer or someone that you respect, if you’re listening to them and they say, ‘Ah, that’s not right, what you’re doing there. You’re doing something that’s not right’ - the way you’re approaching it or whatever - you should see that as beneficial.
Story by The Ville News staff