The finest bluegrass band performing today is The Del McCoury Band. That's not just me talking. They were named Entertainer of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2002. And in 2000. And 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, and 1994.
Del McCoury was born in 1941 in North Carolina and got his start as a banjo player in local bands like The Blue Ridge Ramblers and The Virginia Mountain Boys. His first big break came in 1964 when Bill Monroe himself hired Del to be his lead vocalist and convinced him to switch to guitar.
While he only stayed The Blue Grass Boys for a year, he did learn a lot from Mr. Monroe. In 1967, McCoury formed The Dixie Pals and has been a bandleader ever since.
In 1981, Del's son Ronnie McCoury became his father's mandolin player, and Ronnie has blossomed into the best bluegrass mandolinist you can hear today. And in 1987, Del renamed The Dixie Pals to The Del McCoury Band when his other son Robbie also joined his father, first as the bass player and then switching over to banjo. Fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Mike Bub round out the quintet.
The band stands out in a number of ways. First and foremost is their incredible musicianship. Between them, they've won some 30 IBMA awards, and all five are perennial nominees. But beyond that, they have chosen some great music to record.
Let's start with the classics. They've recorded standards like "Black Mountain Rag" and plenty of Bill Monroe tunes including "Rawhide" and a haunting version of "Get Down On Your Knees and Pray". They've also delved into country and rockabilly, covering songs made famous by Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Martin, and Jeanne Pruett. But they don't stop there. Some of their finest covers have come from outside the bluegrass and country world including "Smokin' Gun" from the Robert Cray catalog and Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" which was the 2002 IBMA Song of the Year.
Not only do their covers shine, but Del is a very good songwriter. Songs like "Look of a Perfect Diamond", "50/50 Chance", and "A Good Man Like Me" deserved to be covered themselves. Ronnie has also written some terrific instrumentals, with "Red Eyes on a Mad Dog" leading the pack.
I'd heard of Del and the Boys for quite a while before I actually heard their music. In 1999, they put out their own album and they also did a record with Steve Earle. I heard that Steve and Del were going to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman and I made it a point to watch. They opened with a song from Steve's record, "Carrie Brown" I think it was, and I thought they were pretty good. Then Earle backed away from the microphone, and Rob kicked off the old John Sebastian tune "Nashville Cats". I was smitten. I went out the next day and bought The Family. You can call me a fan for life.