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When Del McCoury met Woody Guthrie’s words, setting them to music just came naturally

Del McCoury Band will perform at IBMA World of Bluegrass. Del McCoury also will co-host the IBMA Awards.
Del McCoury Band will perform at IBMA World of Bluegrass. Del McCoury also will co-host the IBMA Awards. Courtesy of Del McCoury Band

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It would seem that bluegrass icon Del McCoury and folk legend Woody Guthrie were made for each other.

Each is the patriarch of a musical family. McCoury’s band features his award-winning sons, Ronnie and Rob. Guthrie’s son, Arlo, records and performs with his daughter, Sara Lee, and son, Abe. And Del and Woody are consummate story-tellers whose warm personalities and embrace of everyday people reach deep inside the soul of American folk.

It shouldn’t surprise, then, that Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, asked Del if he and his band would be interested in recording some of the 3,000 poems Guthrie left behind when he died in 1967 from complications of Huntington’s disease.

Nora Guthrie had seen Del McCoury and the band perform at the Newport Folk Festival and invited them to sing at a Woody Guthrie tribute festival in Tulsa, Okla. Following the performance, Guthrie approached McCoury with a request he couldn’t refuse.

Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie died in 1967 from complications of Huntington’s disease. Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, asked Del McCoury if he and his band would be interested in recording some of the 3,000 poems Guthrie left behind. Al Aumuller Courtesy of Woody Guthrie Publications

“After our show, she asked me, ‘Would you be interested in writing music to some of the songs our dad wrote,’” recalled McCoury, who will perform the “Del and Woody” show with his band March 23 at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall. It's the first show of a tour that will promote songs from McCoury's new album, "Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass."

“She found a lot of songs that had no melody," McCoury said. "If they’d had a melody, he took that with him (when he died). They could have been just poems. In about a week I got a big manila envelope in the mail. It had 26 songs in it. We wound up recording 16 of them, and released 12.”

The CD, “Del and Woody,” was released in April 2016.

Several of the songs were written when McCoury was not yet old enough to talk. When Woody Guthrie penned “Left in this World Alone” in March 1939, McCoury was not quite 6 weeks old. These and other songs on the album preceded the emergence of bluegrass music, which Bill Monroe established in 1945.

Like Monroe, Guthrie wrote simple songs that celebrate the lives of common folk. According to Nora, her father had hoped his songs would be played in a bluegrass or old-time string band format. The Del McCoury Band was the perfect fit.

The poems Del selected are classic Guthrie – brief ethnographic sketches of life as he lived and observed it. Nothing, it seems, escaped his gaze and poetic urge.

Del and Woody album.jpg
Woody Guthrie's daughter, Nora Guthrie, asked Del McCoury to write music to songs Woody had written. They received 26 songs, recorded 16 and released 12. The CD, “Del and Woody,” was released in April 2016.

He wrote “Wimmen’s Hats,” for example, in 1940 while walking down a New York City street and marveling at the mystifying fashion of women’s headgear: “Some wrap around like serpents/Some look like ice cream cones/Some look like victory gardens/A/growin’ on their domes.”

In “Family Reunion,” Guthrie counsels those who feel sorrow at the absence of family members who have passed on since the last gathering: “Don’t tell the others to stop all their weeping/That’s the best way to wash out your soul with your eyes.”

McCoury describes his process interpreting Guthrie's words.

“I’d read the words and try to put a melody to fit those words,” McCoury said. “And a tempo to fit the words. I didn’t just pick certain songs because they suited me. I like variety, and his songs have variety. Some were kind of love songs, some were heart songs and some were kind of gospel-oriented.”

Once McCoury had selected the songs and crafted melodies, he turned to his sons to work out arrangements for the band.

“They’re good at that,” McCoury said said. “I’ll put the melody to things and the rhythm. A lot of times we’ll go into the studio and I’ll sing it to them. Once I sing it, they’ll work it out. They don’t really labor over it, but just get in and do it.”

McCoury'’s career began in 1963 as banjo player and guitarist/lead singer with Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Later, he fronted the Dixie Pals. In the 1980s, Ronnie and Rob joined their father in forming the Del McCoury Band.

With sparkling musicianship backing Del McCoury's high lonesome tenor, the band won a Grammy Award in 2006 for its album, “The Company We Keep.” The band has been voted bluegrass music’s Entertainer of the Year nine times, and McCoury owns four Male Vocalist trophies.

Mandolin player Ronnie, banjoist Rob, and fiddle player Jason Carter have won multiple trophies for their instrumental talents.

A hallmark of the Del McCoury Band has been a willingness to step beyond genres and craft songs that embody the spirit of bluegrass, regardless of their origins. They’ve scored hits with covers of Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Nashville Cats” and Richard Thompson’s motorcycle saga, “Vincent Black Lightning.”

Embracing the folk poems of Woody Guthrie was as natural for Del McCoury as holding forth on a bluegrass standard from Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, or even his own band. For McCoury, a good song is a good song regardless of its origin.

“A good song can come from anywhere," he mused. “And music’s all related. I realized quite a long time ago that all music is kin.”

Details

Who: Del McCoury Band performs "Del and Woody"

When: 8 p.m. March 23

Where: Memorial Hall, 114 E. Cameron Ave., Chapel Hill, UNC campus

Cost: $25 and up, $10 for students

Info: 919-843-3333 or carolinaperformingarts.org

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