An Interview with Ronnie McCoury of The Travelin’ McCourys

Karin McLaughlin of DC Music Review spoke to Ronnie McCoury a few days ago before their much anticipated headlining appearance at the Charm City Bluegrass Festival.

Karin McLaughlin: I was lucky enough to talk to one of the famous McCourys, Ronnie was nice enough to take some time from his busy schedule to call in and talk to us about all that’s going on in their neck of the woods and what they’ve got on tap for the summer. Thank you so much for taking the time Ronnie.

Ronnie McCoury: Thank you, Karin

KM: First of all, I’m honored because I’m a huge fan – I kind of have just recently discovered the new world of bluegrass.  I think I caught a Greensky show a couple years ago and then found out that they were playing at Delfest, so I jumped on the bandwagon and now Delfest is my favorite festival every year. Luckily I live very close so I make sure that I go every year, so I’m very honored.
RM: Wow, thank you so much. We appreciate you coming to, the festival.

KM: Now, when I was first getting exposed to bluegrass, I had in my mind, you know, that it was very different than it is now. We’re gonna talk a little bit about that later but I wanna talk about how y’all, as the McCourys do it like nobody else can and it truly is a family affair with you guys. Let’s start at the beginning, what was it like growing up in such a musically talented family? Did everybody have to learn how to play an instrument before they even started school and literally sing for their supper?
RM: (laughs) That’s pretty good. Well, you know, we grew up not too far from you if you’re in DC. About 75 miles north of there, over the line in Pennsylvania. We were just right over the line – southern York County. When I started to play, I just knew, you know, when you’re a kid – it’s just your mom and your dad, and so I knew they worked, they had jobs and my dad would play music on the side. I started on the violin about 9 years old and I played it a couple years and then gave it up and took up the mandolin. My brother was also 9 years old when he started on the banjo. We just thought, well there’s music in the family and dad’s having a lot of fun while he does it so I guess we could give it a try.  Dad never once asked us to practice and I have kids and I try to be the same way with them, you know. They all play a little bit of music and I think if you push somebody, you might push them right out of it.

KM: Yeah of course.
RM: Growing up there with him, I started pretty early on the road, I was just 14 when I played my first show with him and I’ve been there ever since. I jut kinda figured my dad was like everybody elses dad (Laughs) I didn’t realize. Then I got a little older and I started to realize just how talented he really is.

The Traveling' McCoury's performing at the 2016 Charm City Bluegrass Festival with Keller WIlliams.

KM: You took what your dad was doing and put a whole new spin on it. The Travelin McCourys ​took something that had been around and recreated it in a way. You went out and got the best in the business. I read that every member of the band received the International Bluegrass Music Association Award for the instrument that they play. So you did it and you did it well!
RM: Well, you know – we’ve been in it so long and we know so many people. Basically, we started out just as my dad’s band and we didn’t have a guitar player and you have to kind of figure out what you’re going to sound like. I always thought “well you know I’m already playing in what I consider the best bluegrass band that I can be in” with my dad so we’re gonna have to do something different. In the beginning – we’ve been together about 8 years now – but in the beginning it was the Del -less McCoury band (laughs). But you kinda have to figure out what you’re all about. But even now, at my age, I’m still working on it and thinking about what I can do to be different. But I had some more, I guess, different influences, generation gap, you know? That’s kinda how we looked at it when we were doing the Travelin McCourys. It’s also different to have the other guys in the band sing. Jason Carter is a really good singer and Alan is a really good singer so between the three of us, we do the singing - we split it up.

KM: Not only have you guys put a whole new spin on this thing called bluegrass – people for so many years were used to the twangy, front porch sound of bluegrass – you did it and you did it different. You guys have also gotten the chance to play with so many other artists, not only would they might not be exposed to bluegrass but to share the stage with some and also share with their fans. You guys have shared the stage with Phish, String Cheese Incident, you’ve done a song with Dierks Bently.  So what’s it like to get on stage and collaborate with people that are in a different musical genre and scene than, what most people would associate with traditional bluegrass music?
RM: ​Well, you know for the most part, the bands you mentioned, are maybe bluegrass was at heart.  They like the music and they have elements of that music in their own, especially the three  you mentioned to me.  The one thing that’s different for us – and I’m skipping around here because it involves my dad – was when we played with Preservation Jazz Band and we made a record together and toured.  And that was out of what we’re used to really, and for them too.  That was a really unique thing, to be a part of and it all worked because I guess, when you get good musicians together, they can figure it out, you know? (laughs)  And another thing we did early as The Travelin McCourys was collaborated with The Lee Boys out of south Florida and they play what’s called sacred steel music.  It’s from the church and it’s all based around the steel guitar and it’s all electric instruments.  That was really something different for us to be involved in, I thought.  It’s just the willingness to play with other people and see what happens.  You know collaborate and see what happens.  Sometimes it sticks and sometimes it doesn’t.  If you’re a musician, it’s good growth for you and you’re able to learn from it.  I think you can learn from every situation as a musician.

KM:  Well I was going to save this question for later but we’ve kind of opened that can of worms already.  You guys have share the stage with a lot and you’ve collaborated with quite a few but are there any bands or artists that you guys, as a band or maybe just individually, would like to , number one, share the stage with but number two, do a song together with.  That you haven’t had the opportunity to already, let’s say that.

RM: Wow, off the top of my head, I’m not sure because we’ve had so many good things come down the line.  You just wait a little bit and then something else comes along, you know?  (laughs)  I’ve been so fortunate to play with and be around, who I call the masters of this music, my dad included.  From Bill Monroe to Earl Scruggs, the guy that created this music  I was very fortunate to record and play with them and from them to all different kinds of musicians like you said.  It’s hard for me to think of someone I haven’t done it with.

KM: So you leave it as an open-ended invitation to everybody.

RM: I do, you’re right!

KM: That’s a good way to play it.

RM: (laughs) I’m sure there is.  As soon as I hang up, I’ll think of somebody I should’ve said.

KM: Now that we’re talking about music in general – I know, obviously, your dad is a huge influence and some of the people that you’ve gotten to work with and share a stage with are influences as well – you guys also cover some Dead – who are some other big influences for yourself and the band as a sound?

RM: You know,probably outside of the box, outside of the bluegrass world here or acoustic music – Bill Monroe, of course my father.  People like David Grisman, who of course, my dad and him go back to the early 60’s and I finally met him when I was a late teenager.  He gave me the mandolin that I play. I have a real connection to him and his music and kinda through him is how I discovered The Grateful Dead. They had a band in the early 70’s when I was just a little guy and it was called Old and In the Way.  A lot of nights if we do some Dead stuff I’ll explain, “A lot of you folks came to bluegrass through The Grateful Dead and I came to The Grateful Dead through bluegrass.”

KM: There you go, it’s a big circle.

RM: It is, it is.  I can’t really speak for everybody but I do know some influences that the guys have besides me, I always liked The Allman Brothers and I liked southern rock music growing up.  I grew up in the 80’s and there was a lot of the 80’s music that my friends were listening to.  The first concert I went to was Rush in D.C. and Monsters of Metal Tour and all that.  I’ve opened my eyes and ears to a lot of that stuff.  Jason Carter is a big Waylan Jennings fan and Alan Bartram is a huge Martin Offer fan.  My brother’s kinda like me with the Allman Brothers and southern rock, he always liked that.  Besides that, we always liked a lot of the acoustic giants like David Gresham, Bella Fleck and Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, you know.  Those guys that are so great on their instruments and you know bluegrass music doesn’t rely a whole lot on electronics and it’s just you and your instrument.  You really have to know it, you have to know your instrument.

KM:  I’m glad you brought that up, you guys have been not afraid to explore and break tradition and plug in if necessary.

RM:​​​​ Yeah, we do, we do all the time, The Travelin McCourys and for a couple reasons.  One is for more volume in certain situations and then, I do pick up what’s called a mando caster, which is a solid-bodied, electric mandolin and use it on some things.  Like I said, I’ve always liked these different musics and this gives me a chance to scratch the itch (laughs).  As you do that, the next thing you know, you’re finding your own sound.  It’s what’s happened for us and it took a while for us to do that.  Part of it was just the fact that for many years, we didn’t have a hired guitar player, we had to rely on different people we could get just for the weekend or whatever because we’re still very active with my dad on the road.  We got to a point where we could do it, we got a lot more gigs coming in and now it’s a real, for sure thing.  That allowed us to hire Cody Kelby.  He’s a great musician, he’s from Tennessee and we met him when he was just a little fella.  He was almost like a prodigy type.  He and Chris Steely and some young fellas that were around the same age, they were really interested in this kind of music and they just really learned their instruments well.  This guy, when I met him, he was a banjo player and really good.  The next thing I know, he’s playing the mandolin and he’s really good.  Then he moved to the guitar and that’s his main instrument.  He spent 14 years in Ricky Scaggs Kentucky Thunder band.  So he’s pretty much a seasoned guy like you said.

The Traveling' McCoury's Debut Album available May 25, 2018

KM: Big things have been happening for you guys, other than what we’ve already talked about and your self-titled debut album has been announced and is coming out right in time for Delfest actually.  How did that come about and also, I’m curious about the process of deciding to do it and how on earth you decide what songs you want to put on it.  You guys have been around for so long, doing so much – how do you decide what you’re going to put out to the world as “Here’s our first album”?

RM:  Well, that’s a toughie.  Of the 8 years that we’ve been playing, we tried to find some that – well I did some writing – I wrote I think 3 of them, Alan – he co-wrote 3 of his songs and I think the rest of them are written by different folks.  Just kinda what we had worked on in the last year or two as a show and what we were kind of honing, I guess.  Getting all the arrangements together, we kinda went in and did that.  We got some newer tunes.  It’s a tough thing to do, especially your first record.  I guess we’ll see what happens if we get a second record (laughs)

KM: That’s always the telltale sign.

RM:​​​​​ (laughs) It sure is!

KM: Well I’m sure hoping for another one and looking forward to listening to this one for sure.

RM: Well thank you.

KM: I read on your bio “If you hold still long enough, they’ll come to you”.  You guys seem to love the road life or maybe it just comes as second nature but you just keep going.  You’ve got some shows coming up around this area.  You’ve got Charm City Bluegrass Festival, then Delfest.  What keeps road life appealing and interesting or is it more that the opposite is not?

RM: Well, I guess, you know, I’ve been a lot of places with my dad and we’ve watched it grow and build it.  I feel like, and he would probably agree with me, that we all did it together.  We moved from Pennsylvania to Nashville and got serious about it in 1992 and saw all these great things happen with my dad.  Kind of the pinnacle for a country or bluegrass musician in this town or in your career is to become a Grand Old Oprey member.  It’s a very prestigious thing to be asked to join as a member.  Basically you’re saying when someone comes to town to see this show – it’s a live radio show with 5000 seats – we’re gonna give you the best of the best.  To have my dad become that is a really wonderful thing.  Then he becomes a Bluegrass Hall of Fame member and a National Endowment for the Arts out of DC gave him their heritage award and you see all this stuff and I can’t be any more proud of my father and we all did it together.  I guess now in a way, it’s time to see –we keep doing what we do for sure with my dad and he’ll be the first to tell you – we’re gonna see what these guys can do now.

KM: Carry on the legacy

RM: Yeah.  The traveling is the hardest part.  Getting on stage is the easy part.  We have to, as The Travelin McCourys see how far we can take it.  It’s all about getting more people out to see you, you know?

KM: Well thank you very much for your time, I look forward to seeing you guys on stage again soon. 

RM: Thank you for your time and your kind words.

The Travelin' McCourys are scheduled to perform on Friday, April 27, 2018 at the Charm City Bluegrass Festival at 8:00 PM.

To learn more about The Travelin' McCourys you can visit their website or Facebook page.

About the author
Karin McLaughlin

Karin McLaughlin

Karin has been a live music junkie all her life, however is a fairly new fan in the world of jam bands and bluegrass. She grew up on hip hop, classic soul, motown and classic rock but has found a new home in the festival world and that is what, in part, had brought her to DC Music Review. Karin produces and hosts a weekly radio show in the area called Karin's Calendar, where she talks all about 'Where to be in the DMV'. She is very excited to be starting down a semi-new road with us and hopes to use her interview skills and write ups of shows to contribute even more to DC Music Review.