Happy Birthday Del McCoury!

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Del McCoury turned 84 today. Happy Birthday Del! One of bluegrass’s senior statesmen, Del is particularly close to fans here in California because he visited us pretty often. He’s also trained some of the best and brightest bluegrass stars out there still touring today like sons Rob and Ronnie.
So here’s a memory from one of Del’s visits a few years ago at Grass Valley to honor the legend on his birthday:
There is an annual event somewhere in Georgia called the Red Neck Olympics. Participants compete in various tongue-in-cheek “events” as a good natured spoof of southern culture. Events in the Red Neck Olympics include the toilet seat toss, the mud pit belly flop and my personal favorite the “armpit serenade”. Armpit serenade here is a euphemism for a certain lower gastrointestinal sound that nice people don’t talk about.
(More background)
Del McCoury is a really nice gentleman. I’m sure he doesn’t spend much time talking about crude things like armpit serenades. Some bluegrass fans may remember that Del ended a musical collaboration with Steve Earle over the issue of onstage vulgarity. Del gives his fans not only a great show, but a show that is appropriate for all ages.
(Where background leads to anecdote)
It was with great pleasure when, with my two children I listened to the Del McCoury band at Grass Valley in 2007. What a performance! After one set I marched Juliet (10) and Ethan (7) up to the CD booth to meet Del’s wife and the whole band. We stood in line patiently to meet the patriarch of so much great bluegrass music and noticed how Del took his time chatting with and charming all of his admirers. What a nice guy. At last the time came for my own family audience and it was just like we were in Del’s living room. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry and he and his wife were the epitome of graciousness.
I introduced myself and Juliet and Ethan and I asked for a suggestion about a CD to purchase. I already owned a few classics from the band so Del suggested their newest CD, The Company We Keep. On the front of that CD is a picture of the band seated around what looks like a board room table of a big company. Del stands at the head of the table. Other pictures in the jacket show the wives in similar poses, all the families together and on the back cover, the third generation of Emma, Evan, Jacob, Josh and Monroe.
I was sure when I saw that back cover that this was the proper CD for me and my two kids, who were about the same age as most of these McCoury futures. Del proudly pointed out his grandchildren and asked if Juliet or Ethan played an instrument. Ethan answered that he was a fiddle player and Del pointed out which of his brood also played fiddle. Juliet offered that she played piano but apologized that it was not really a bluegrass instrument. Del smiled and said “Oh the piano is great. See this one here? (pointing to another grandchild). He plays piano too”.
All of a sudden and before I could stick a bass fiddle in her mouth, Juliet continues “Actually my best bluegrass instrument is the armpit _ _ _ _” (and here my sweet darling daughter uses the four letter word for which serenade is a euphemism). I watched Del’s face carefully and wondered if he was going to have a stroke. He seemed to rock back ever so slightly but his genial smile broadened and he seemed to take it all in stride.
Just then the embarrassment rushed to my head and I wondered if I was going to have a stroke! I recovered enough to explain to Del where that comment had come from. I had been playing a bluegrass record in my truck the previous week on the way to a birthday party for one of Ethan’s friends. The truck was full of kids and they had been cutting up by “chopping” to my bluegrass record with the juicy gastrointestinal sound that had been going around their schools all week. It was a hot humid day and to be truthful, I complemented my passengers on their performance. Under the right circumstances, the armpit serenade can produce some really good bluegrass. If you don’t believe me just pile a few kids into your truck on a hot day and pop in Geoff Stelling’s CD Hard Driving. Go to cut #12 and listen to what those kids can do with the Nine Pound Hammer. You really have to hear it to believe it.
A few weeks after Grass Valley we went to hear Del and the boys give a live performance at the Raven Theater in our home town of Healdsburg. What a treat! Those guys really worked hard to entertain everyone in the audience. The Raven is a small venue and I felt like I was in Del’s living room again. It was a single mike mix and to see those consumate pros dance around that microphone was ballet added to great music.
They asked for requests from the audience and whether it was one of their tunes or not they played it and they played it well. I didn’t hear a tune called out that night that they didn’t play. Juliet’s call of Queen Anne’s Lace and Ethan’s call, Vincent 1952, were met with thunderous applause. For a moment I considered calling for the Nine Pound Hammer but I decided not to risk it.

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