"O Bro" continues to roll along
The story has grown a bit stale - about the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and its surprise success.
The phenomenon, however, rolls on.
The Del McCoury Band
The collection of old-time country, gospel, folk and blues music, performed by an all-star cast, has sparked new interest in American roots music while out-selling any reasonable prediction and landing a boatload of honors: five Grammy awards, including Album of the Year and Producer of the Year; five Country Music Association awards, including Album of the Year and Single of the Year; and three International Bluegrass Music Association awards, including Album of the Year and Song of the Year.
The recording spawned a live show with many of the featured performers, Down From the Mountain, which was recorded and filmed by rockumentary king D.A. Pennebaker and won its own Grammy for Traditional Folk Album. Soon came a tour of 17 cities in January and February, then 35 more dates in July and August, and finally seven more this month, including Thursday"s show at the Verizon Wireless Music Center.
Now that the Time-Life CDs and the PBS documentary miniseries have come and gone, some critics have announced the end of the millennial roots music craze, but the buying public doesn"t seem to notice. After 84 weeks on Billboard"s main album chart, the O Brother soundtrack still sits at No. 28, with more than 6 million copies sold in the U.S. The disc is still at No. 3 on Billboard"s country chart.
The tour, likewise, rolls on, with a roster of artists who represent the best of traditional American music over the past half-century: Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs and the Del McCoury Band, to name a few.
The McCoury band did not appear in the O Brother movie or on the soundtrack, but its invitation to this summer"s Mountain tour seems a natural, given the quintet"s stature as the best-loved contemporary purveyors of traditional bluegrass. Guitarist-vocalist Del McCoury, 63, played with Bill Monroe in the early 1960s and finally cemented his own reputation when he began performing with his sons in the "80s. Del McCoury now leads a lineup that includes Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Rob McCoury on banjo, Jason Carter on fiddle and Mike Bub on bass. The bluegrass association, besides honoring the individual members several times for their instrumental prowess, has named the band its top entertainer for six of the past eight years.
Known for groundbreaking collaborations with artists such as Steve Earle, the Chieftains and Phish, the McCoury band recently scored a No. 1 bluegrass album with 2001"s Del and the Boys and a No. 1 bluegrass single with a surprising cover of Richard Thompson"s classic motorcycle ode, "1952 Vincent Black Lightning."
Despite their own success, the band has found great reward in joining the Down From the Mountain tour this summer, Ronnie McCoury said.
"It"s really nice to be involved in this whole thing," said Ronnie McCoury, the IBMA"s top mandolin player for eight straight years. "You feel like you"re part of something really special and bigger than you."
The 35-year-old McCoury was as surprised as anyone by the recent surge of interest in traditional music. When he asked tourmate Norman Blake for his theory, Blake - a veteran of the "60s and "70s folk craze - recounted a 40-year-old conversation with a leading country DJ of the time.
"It was like 1961, and rock "n" roll was pretty much eating everybody"s lunch in the country field," McCoury said. "And the DJ told him, "You let people get sick, or we could get into a war, and they always come back to country music." When we have hard times, that"s what happens. And it made me think about what"s been happening since September. I don"t know if that has anything to do with this all, but I think it has a little bit. Ö It"s good music for hard times."
McCoury spoke by phone last week from his home near Nashville. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
NUVO: Acoustic roots music lends itself to small, intimate settings. Is it strange to play in big amphitheaters?
McCoury: No, not really. The way the whole thing is set up, it"s supposed to be kind of like sitting in your living room. So we do what we do, and we still work around just a couple mikes. Most people do, on the whole show.
NUVO: What"s the format? I assume each act does two or three songs.
McCoury: Almost every night there"s something a little different happening, different people playing with different people, and that"s kind of neat. Roseanne Cash came in and played a few shows. Ö I played with Jerry Douglas one night, played with Patty one night, sung with Ralph one night. It keeps it more interesting Ö
NUVO: Has this allowed you to get to know some people you didn"t before?
McCoury: The bluegrassers I"ve been around most of my life, like Emmy and Patty - met them all, been around them a little bit. Even Ralph, you know, I"ve been around him all my life. But it"s different when you see them every day, spend day in and day out with everybody, eat lunch and dinner. It"s really a unique experience for everybody.
NUVO: That"s a lot of egos in one room, isn"t it?
McCoury: But you know, there is none. None. I don"t see it, not at all. You"d think you"d see some ego flare-up or something. Not at all. It"s really special.
NUVO: Your band wasn"t on the O Brother soundtrack. Has its popularity had any impact on the response you get?
McCoury: It"s hard for me to tell. We"ve been on this thing since June 24, and we"ve only had a couple dates outside of that. I can"t really see it yet, but I"m sure we will. I can kind of tell by the response, and also what"s happening with record sales in these cities after we leave. We"ll find out when we go back. This thing is still selling like crazy. Ö It"s turned everyone"s head in Nashville, just spun it like a top.
NUVO: Mainstream interest in roots music seems to come and go in cycles, and already some critics have announced the end of this wave. Do you see it fading?
McCoury: I don"t know. I know there are loyal fans. They"ve always been there, and they don"t seem to drop off. For us, anyhow, it just keeps getting bigger. We"ve never sold a million records as the Del McCoury Band, but it just keeps rising. Ö From what I understand, in the industry, nobody"s counting it out right now.
NUVO: For a genre based on tradition, your band kind of pushes the envelope. How did you come to record a Richard Thompson song?
McCoury: A friend of mine said, "You should listen to this tune." As soon as I heard it, I thought, "What a great song. I want to hear my dad do it." So I played it for Dad, and he used to ride motorcycles back in his day, he had an Indian, and man, it just clicked. You never know till you actually work it up and record it whether it"s going to work or not. Nine months at No. 1 on the bluegrass chart. It"s kind of become a career song for my dad, a really good song. It"s going to be there for a long time. And Richard Thompson is really proud that my dad did it, I"ve found out. He digs the cut. Ö My dad"s always said, "A good song can be done any way," and it just happened to adapt very well to us, the banjo and the whole thing. We do it on the show.
NUVO: The IBMA named you best mandolin player for eight years in a row, but then Chris Thile from Nickel Creek won last year. That has to be annoying. What is he, like, 20 years old?
McCoury: I think he"s 21 now. Chris I"ve known since he was 8. He"s the Mozart of our time. Unbelievable, man. I"ve never heard anybody play quite like him and absorb like he does. It"s amazing. They"re going to open up some new doors with what they"re doing. They"re more pop-oriented, if that"s the way they want to go. And good for him. He"s an incredible talent.
NUVO: Was there ever a period of time that you rejected your father"s music? Were you a garage rocker?
McCoury: At about 9 I started playing the violin in orchestra, and I gave that up to be involved in sports after school. Then, when I hit 13, I got the bug and started playing the mandolin, and about six months later is when my dad got me on stage, and that"s how I just jumped right into it. Then around 17 or something like that, all my friends were rock "n" rollers, listened to all kinds of music. They took me to my first rock "n" roll concert - Rush - and I couldn"t believe all the music coming out of three guys. It just blew my mind. Then I had a friend who was into the Grateful Dead, and then I had a connection, because David Grisman had recorded with them, and of course David was my hero. So I had to find out what that was all about. And I wound up meeting [Jerry] Garcia several times and sold him some banjos, and I took my dad to a show. I went to probably 30 shows, something like that. I kind of connected. I found the bridge there, you know? Folk, rock, blues and where Garcia was coming from. So I got into them, and if that"s rebelling, that"s what I did, and wound up playing in a Grateful Dead cover band type thing.
NUVO: It"s interesting to see this common ground between the fans of roots music and the fans of jam bands. Is there ever a culture clash in your audiences?
McCoury: There never seems to be any kind of problem with that. Both sets of people are there. Sometimes I think if we play a college town, there"s going to be a lot of older folks that don"t want to come. I think that might happen sometimes. But we"ve played everything. We"ve played bars that are considered college bars, and we pack them in, and then we"ve played a lot of theaters and from that to amphitheaters. We just played the Bonnaroo Festival [a June event in Tennessee, headlined by Widespread Panic and Trey Anastasio], and that was an amazing thing to be a part of. We were booked two weeks out, so we weren"t on any schedule. We were the TBA. Ö And there must have been over 5,000 people there to see us. We walked on stage, and it was just like a rock show. And I introduced my dad, and it was like five minutes of [applause and] "Wait till they get done, Dad." I was glad they had us. We were the only bluegrass band there.
Ö And my dad, after 40 years in the business and doing every kind of gig imaginable, being accepted by 20-year-old kids, you know, it"s really cool.
Scott Hall is music writer for the Daily Journal of Johnson County and The Zone in Columbus.