Rob McCoury on Music, Being a McCoury and Travelin’ Like One

Karin McLaughlin
By Karin McLaughlin / November 14, 2018

The Travelin' McCourys are coming back to D.C with the start of their latest tour.  You can catch them at The Hamilton on Friday, November 16 and before they charm their way back into our hearts, we got to talk with Rob McCoury all about growing up in the bluegrass world, what he loves about it and how it's evolved.  

​Karin McLaughlin:  Thank you so much for taking some time especially now realizing that you're on the road, obviously traveling somewhere, I appreciate it very much.  We are very excited to have you guys coming back to the D.C. area​ as well.  Now, if we could just ​real quick, I know that obviously anyone in the bluegrass scene knows the name McCoury, knows the ​Travelin' McCourys, knows the Del McCoury Band, and if you're from this area, you're lucky enough to know of Delfest, ​but for anybody that maybe might not be as familiar, can you ​give ​us a little bit of a history and background?  Now, we don't have to go all the way bac​k because, I mean, you've pretty much been in the music scene since before you were born, but ​just as far as with you starting out?  I know you started ​playing with your dad's band and then ​you transitioned into The ​Travelin' McCoury's.

Rob McCoury: Yeah, sure.  My dad, he was pretty well established when I started with him in about 1986.  I've been in his band since then, since '86.  ​My brother (Ronnie McCoury), I believe he started 1982 and ​he's been there ever since.  ​We were kind of born into the music, you know - raised around it, raised in​ it I guess you could say (laughs).   So​ then skip forward another ​some 30 years probably​ and it was ​actually my dad's idea is to start our own band, absent of him.   ​At that point even he said, "I don't know how long I'm gonna be able to do this."

KM: He was faking you guys out (laughs).

RM: Yeah, he's gonna be 80 here in February, so I guess he was faking us out (laughs).   I think at that point, he was about 70 ​and he said, "You guys​ - I'd hate for something to happen to me where I couldn't do this and you guys will have to start ​from the ground up", which was smart because without his coaxing, we may not have done this ​when we did.  I'm sure we would have at some point, but you know he was right, I realized that​ it would be bad to ​go from ​making a pretty good ​living to making a not so good ​living (laughs).   So ​then fast forward about eight or nine years later now, we're ​out ​doing our own thing, working.   I think we did about 65 or 70 dates as The Travelin' McCourys last year and ​that many with dad too and I think maybe even a few more for The Travelers (The Travelin' McCourys) this year.  It keeps us busy, that's for sure! (laughs).

​KM: ​​ I saw the press release that you guys got Instrumental Group of the Year, so congratulations on that! 

RM: Thank you, yeah that did happen! 

KM:​ How does it feel to have that, kind of, notch on the belt now?  I know you guys obviously have been working with your dad for quite some years and he's probably gotten every accolade you can get.   Now you guys are ​taking, ​like you mentioned, he encourag​ed you guys to do it on your own and ​you guys are very, very good at what you do.  You play a lot of shows, you're great live, but to have that ​little side note, I guess you can say, how does it feel to have something like that accomplished as a group on your own?

RM: ​Yeah, you know,​ it's really cool. ​It's a great feeling that, ​at the IBM (International Bluegrass Music ) ​awards, ​most of those voters are your peers, ​other musicians, other guys and girls who are ​out there basically doing the same job that you're doing and a lot of the Bluegrass Music Associations from the different states and it's pretty cool when you look at it that way.   It's not just anybody that can ​vote in those things, it's gotta be people who are the business, so people who are in the business vote you in or deem you worthy of winning this award (laughs).

KM: Right, now you got some street cred (laughs).

RM: Yeah, I was surprised. I said that at the acceptance there. ​ I just happened to be the closest one to the stage, so ​I was the first one to get up there​.  People don't really know me as a ​talker and I had to come up with something to say and​that's the first thing I said, "Wow, this is a shocker!" (laughs)  ​To see who ​we were in the ​the category with I thought, "Well we're not going to get this."   We were just honored to be ​in the same category with ​these guys that are out there and it was it was a surprise to me​.  Maybe​ it shouldn't have been, but it was (laughs).  ​

KM: ​ You talk about being in a in a group with such​ commendable and recognized musicians - you guys do a lot of touring - lots of shows,​ festivals - ​I don't want to put you on the spot in a bad way, but do y​'all have a favorite group that you like to tour with? I know that you're playing ​in DC ​with the Dirty Grass Players and a lot of your shows it looks like it's just you guys sometimes,​ but you also play a ton of festivals - the Bluegrass circuit is big on the festivals now​ -is there somebody that you guys really enjoy being on a lineup with, even just if it's just to be able to see them perform when you guys are done playing?

​RM: Yeah, ​we do.  We all have our people that we kind of look up to.  ​In the straight ahead bluegrass world, you know, I grew up  on what are considered the greatest of the bluegrass genre, and unfortunately, most of those guys are about gone.   There's definitely some​ bluegrass guys that are around, Larry Sparks is one of my favs, I love him.  There's a fella out of Virginia up there, Junior Sisk, he's a great bluegrass singer, in the straight up bluegrass world those are some.  As far as the more jammy side of things, I really, really like Leftover Salmon.

KM: ​Oh, I just saw them a couple weeks ago again, they're great!

RM:  We've known those guys a long time and we've got a great friendship so it's not​ just about being there to play music, ​it's just great to hang out with them​ and catch up.  String Cheese Incident, love those guys and in the same way​, we've​ known those guys a long time as well and ​it's nice to catch up with them, visit, hang out.  Billy​ Nershi​, he did a bunch of shows with​ The Travelers, he was our guitar player and we also had from Leftover, Drew Emmitt and Andy Thorn, we ​went out and did a whole run of shows with those guys, just had a blast, all on the bus together having a good time (laughs).

KM: Those are the stories you can't tell (laughs).

​RM: ​Yup.  I can write em down, but they can't be published (laughs).

​KM: So I kind of like that you brought up ​the different​, it's not ​genres of bluegrass, but it's buckets maybe ​we'll say. You've got the old school, traditional stuff that you ​grew up on and it's more of what your dad ​plays ​too and then you have ​what they're ​dubbing as jam grass​, which is more ​the Greensky Bluegrass and the Infamous ​Stringdusters.  ​From a personal perspective, being obviously that you​, like we discussed, were pretty much born into this music - what have you seen as some of the biggest changes as far as that kind of inner mixing of not only fans but musicians and music? ​Also, what now musicians from different areas are able to do together, you mentioned you had somebody from Salmon and somebody from Cheese play with you guys, so what are some of the biggest things that you've seen that have ​ shaped now what is the bluegrass music scene?

RM: I'd say definitely one of the one of the biggest things nowadays ​is bluegrass w​as always an acoustic music, which it still is, but​ now having the ability to plug your instruments ​in and and basically make you sound bigger than you really are (laughs) if that makes sense.  With these pick ups now, there's some high quality stuff ​that, 20 years ago if you plugged a banjo in to a pickup, it sounded terrible.  There​ weren't ​nearly the options​ for acoustic instruments that sounded good, they just weren't out there.  Now ​there's a lot of good stuff ​and just being able to plug in and get loud.  ​I think that ​the younger​ crowd, say your your hippie crowd, they like to dance,  they want to be able to feel the music.  That's a big part of if.  ​They want to be able to turn it up loud, now not loud enough to make their ears bleed, but so that they can feel it (laughs).  That ​and it seems like ​every ​couple months, we'll run into a band maybe I'm not familiar with, ​and maybe not everybody in the band is a great player but ​there'll be one standout ​on some instrument and they're just killin it and they're just kids.   It's like, 'Where did this guy come from?!'

KM: Yeah, I feel like that about​ Billy Strings I mean ​talk about a guy, a young kid that can kill it!

RM: Billy's another one, yeah he's fun to hang out with.  He's kind of a rare exception in that way.  He's a young guy, but he's rooted in the same way we are - hardcore, traditional bluegrass.  He loves it and can play it and play it very well.  ​ A lot of the younger bands, they didn't grow up on the traditional bluegrass, they grew up on the jam band music.  Not saying it's good or bad, but not a lot of us ​really know how to play the music in the traditional way, where it all kind of came from.  Not that they aren't great players, because they definitely are.

KM: Speaking on that same subject, you mentioned that ​you spend about half the time touring with your dad and his band and then you spend half the time ​touring as ​The Travelin' McCourys.   ​What do you see as a couple major ​differences, in not only the playing, but the attendees and the feel and kind of just the whole ​vibe ​​in those two shows?

RM: Well, it seems like definitely the fan base, as far as ​The Travelers, we have a pretty young fan base, most of them younger than me, not saying that I'm old or anything, but I'm not that young either (laughs). ​ The ​bluegrass crowd, it kind of runs the gamut of young folks up to people that are in their ​seventies and older. ​  One of the great things a​bout the music now is that younger crowd, you know we have to have that to continue​.  A lot of ​your ​diehard, older crowd bluegrass people​, they're ​literally dying off and there's not ​a lot of new blood there​ and it's a shame​. I mean, we see it ​, the Travelers, from a festival standpoint​ - some of the ​old, traditional style bluegrass festivals aren't making it anymore because their crowd's not making any more. ​ When I started with ​my dad, the thing  then was ​there was a lot ​of the motor home,  ​RV crowd retirees.  They would have motor homes and they'd go all summer. ​ Now, those people are gone and I think definitely with the jam gras​s ​thing coming along and bringing out the younger crowd, it not only helps the jam grass scene but my dad, he's been ​accepted into that scene, so that we can go anywhere with dad and draw a good, younger crowd​ (laughs).

KM: Delright.  You guys have ​had quite a busy summer and I see on your​ website you got some dates scheduled all the way through April it looks like.  That's kind of into festival season getting started back up again. ​ We're going to ​ talk a little bit about the upcoming few shows on this ​tour, but do you ​have - from summer 2018 now that we're kind of into Fall - do you have ​a favorite summer show memory or a festival that you guys played that​ really stands out as ​your favorite from the summer 2018 season?

RM: Oh yeah, absolutely - Delfest​.​  (laughs).  At Delfest this year, we did or dad said we did the Bluegrass Congress is what they told him it was.  It was our band wi​th Jerry Douglas and Ricky Skaggs​, a whole bunch of others. ​

KM: ​There was so much talent on that stage! I remember there was also a little bit of a thunder and lightning delay or something and everyone was worried we weren't going to get to see the Congress.

RM: Yeah the Congress thing was great but then ​The Travelers went on after​ and we only had like 20 minutes or so​ because of that delay - there's a​ serious hard curfew there and the weather put us behind and everything​, which was a drag .   I think one of the highlights​ of that was Ricky Skaggs walking​ out with his Telecaster and just rockin (laughs).  ​That's probably one of my favorite things of all time right there that I've ever done​, musically.  He is such a great man and he just came out there that Telecaster and he was just what it needed!

KM: We were all very thankful for that and the Bluegrass Congress.   And we were also thankful that ​The Travelin McCourys still had a Sunday late night show to play because I think everybody - that was kind of the the whisper in the crowd was that if this delay was going to cut y'all's time short.  Everybody was kind of like, 'Oh, don't worry, they still play tomorrow night, it's fine. We'll still get to see them.' ​ Now that you brought up Delfest - which happens to be one of my favorite festivals and is not far from here - it's not exactly a homecoming, but being that you're playing in DC next weekend and it's pretty close to home for you guys, how does it feel to come and be able to do a show in DC and have all the familiar faces in the crowd? I'm sure you all have a lot of people that will come out for that.

RM: Oh, yeah there'll be a be a lot of familiar faces in the crowd, a lot of the Delfest alumni there.​  You know, ​we've made a lot of good friends​ from the fans that have been c​oming to ​Delfest throughout the years and you get to know people​ pretty well. ​  I've got​ buddies that I text and call all the time that I met from just coming as a patron to the festival and we wound up being friends, good friends.   ​We'll be seeing some of them I know that (laughs).  It's not far from our home where we grew up ​right in York, Pennsylvania so we'll have some friends and family com​ing to our show there.

KM: You guys also have a lot of other stuff on the calendar in the near future I see.  Looks like other than some breaks for ​Thanksgiving and Christmas, you're booked for shows all the way through April.  ​Is there anything in particular ​for this tour, maybe a place you haven't performed yet that you guys are hitting on this leg ​that you're excited about or place you're excited to go back to that you've really found to be welcoming for The Travelin McCourys?

RM: Yeah, you know it's hard to beat Colorado when you play music, they come out ​and they support it.  The last shows we've got for the year is a nice three day run ​out in Colorado.  ​It's gonna be December so it might be a little cold (laughs).

KM: Yeah I saw you guys are playing I think​ at Cervantes, which is a great venue I've been out there ​to a concert before. ​ I love Colorado for music, you're right - it's a great ​place to go see​ some live shows. ​

RM: We were just there a couple weeks ago w​ith dad and now we're going back with Travelers.  We'll play Fort Collins, Denver and Boulder Vista.  Our buddy Dierks Bently had a big country festival out there this year and I'd never been ​out to that part of Colorado before and then I looked on the​ schedule and the hotel that we stayed in when we ​were out there is ​the venue is that we're p​laying with The Travlers.   ​It'll be interesting to see how that one that one goes, I mean it's rural Colorado you know, it's not really close to anything but I'm sure the people still​ will show up.

KM: Oh yeah, no doubt about that.  I've got some friends out in Colorado, and I'm going to make sure they have that ​Cervantes show on their radar too.

RM: Yeah, ​​that's been a good room for ​us.  I think the Front Range in Colorado is probably our fastest growing fan base as far as The Travelers.  When we ​go, you can tell from the stage that there's more there than there was the last time we ​played. ​ We usually try and ​get out there, they cycle us in there about once a year which is typical, maybe twice. The hopes are for twice - that means that means you're doing well in that area (laughs).

KM: Well, I personally am very excited about the show next week at Hamilton, I will definitely be there and I always am excited to hear any announcements about Delfest coming out. So we look forward to seeing you here in DC and I appreciate the time very much.

RM: Thank you and we look forward to being there! ​​

​The Travelin' McCourys with Dirty Grass Players

Performance Details



​Friday, November 16, 2018

Doors: ​6:30PM

Show: ​8:00PM

The Hamilton

600 14th Street NW

Washington, DC 20005

(Google Maps Link)

$20- $25 - In Advance

$20 -$25 - Day of Performance

Related Articles

Related Articles

Related Articles

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.