(This story originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Fly Magazine.)
Music has always been a family affair for Rob McCoury. It helps when your father helped pioneer an entire musical genre.
Rob, a York County native and son of bluegrass legend Del McCoury, has been playing in his father’s musical project – the Del McCoury Band – since he was 15 and attending Susquehannock High School in Glen Rock. He’s considered one of the best banjo players in the world, garnering several nominations for “Banjo Player of the Year” by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA).
The Del McCoury Band has left its stamp in the world of Americana music over several decades, winning the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 2006 for The Company We Keep and being named Entertainer of the Year nine times by the IBMA. They even started their own annual music festival – DelFest – in 2008 in Cumberland, MD, drawing everyone from Trey Anastasio of Phish to Steve Martin.
The McCoury family remains a close-knit outfit; Rob and his mandolin-playing brother, Ronnie, both continue to play in their father’s band. As a whole, the family relocated from York to Nashville in 1992 to be closer to the hub of country music. Today, Rob lives on the same road as his father, less than a half-a-mile away in Hendersonville, TN. His brother and sister live close by, too.
When not touring with the Del McCoury Band, Rob and Ronnie teamed up to form the Travelin’ McCourys, which blends traditional bluegrass with the sounds of newgrass and even jam rock. The brothers collaborated with jam guitarist Keller Williams for last year’s album release, Pick. They return to the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival this month, performing with Billy Nershi of the String Cheese Incident.
We caught up with Rob from his home as he cooled off in the pool with his three young children during last month’s heat wave.
Fly Magazine: Was music something that was always around your family growing up?
Rob McCoury: Music was always there. Dad would use a little bit of psychology on us. He’d leave instruments around where they were just handy enough to get to them. He didn’t keep them locked up and hid from us where us kids wouldn’t tear them up. He taught both me and my brother how to play, but he never forced it on us. He’d let us pick it up on our own. I don’t remember one time him telling either one of us to go practice. But when we started learning to play, we played – that’s all we did. I’d get the banjo and maybe play six to seven hours a day. It’s good when you’re a kid because you don’t have nothing else to do. [laughs]
FM: Did it feel strange growing up around a bluegrass legend and touring with him while you were still in high school?
RM: I can remember when I was a real little kid thinking, “Well, I guess this is what everybody does.” It seemed like most people I knew played music, too. But they were my dad’s friends and people who played in the band with him. Once I got a little bit older and got to traveling with dad, to see the notoriety he had in new places was pretty special. He’d go to some state like California where he had never been, and the people were just raving. And now today, to stand back and look at the things he’s accomplished over the last 25 years makes me proud, seeing dad do so well and knowing you had a hand in it as well – or at least dragging us along with him [laughs].
FM: How long did it take for you to start feeling comfortable on the banjo?
RM: I’m not there yet. [laughs] It took a little while. Of course, when you’re a kid, if you’re going to be good at something it comes pretty quick – whether it’s pitching a baseball or catching a football or riding a bicycle. Playing banjo came pretty natural. I guess it’s kind of a hereditary thing. I remember seeing how much fun it looked like dad was having when he was playing. I think that’s what drew both me and my brother in to it.
FM: Is it true you still get nervous when you get up on stage to perform?
RM: Absolutely. It’s not really stage fright. Sometimes it’s like falling off a log and saying, “Here we go.” And sometimes you catch those butterflies a little bit. The Grand Ole Opry – that will bring it out of you, if any place will. The stage of the Grand Ole Opry is the place where bluegrass music as we know it was formed. To walk out on that stage and think, “Man, this is where it all happened. Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt and Chubby Wise – these great musicians are part of the reason why we do what we do. And these guys stood here on this same spot.” It’s a little unnerving.
FM: Besides your dad not being in the band, what’s the biggest difference between a performance by the Del McCoury Band and the Travelin’ McCourys?
RM: We definitely have different material that we do. We’re a little more apt to stretch songs out and play them a little bit longer. Bluegrass songs are pretty short, anyway – a long one is three-and-a-half minutes. The main thing is that dad’s not there, but we always have someone that’s a very able and capable guitar player. We call them gunslingers or guitar-slingers – a guy that can really play lead acoustic guitar. We have several that we use, which adds a whole new dynamic to the band.
FM: As someone who grew up in the bluegrass world, what has it been like to branch out and play with musicians like Keller Williams, Phish and other jam bands?
RM: It was a whole new thing when we started getting around those bands. Phish had a festival in Oswego, NY, and they booked us at it. Unbeknownst to us, they were Del McCoury fans. Personally, I didn’t know much about them at that time, but we got up there and there were 77,000 people at that festival. We figured these guys have got something going on here [laughs]. We got to meet them and sit in with them, and it was really something. And Keller – he’s another one. He’s so good at what he does, and I think what we do together is really cool. It’s some of my favorite things I’ve ever been a part of. I think he enjoys it too because it’s a band thing, which he doesn’t always do – he’s a solo guy. But learning new material and playing it – that’s what makes it fun. We always say, “We’ll play for free, but we’ll get paid to travel.” [laughs]
FM: What does the word “bluegrass” mean to you?
RM: When I hear the word bluegrass, it makes me think of the very first bluegrass band, which I love and what drew my dad to it – Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Those guys laid the foundation for bluegrass music. Anybody who plays bluegrass music has those guys to thank. Of course, there’s different types of bluegrass, just like there’s different types of rock and roll. Some people just put their stamp on what they do. I think my dad has always done that. If you’re a bluegrass fan, when you hear him, you know who he is.