Watching the ho-hum Grammy Awards telecast a few weeks ago, I found the only moments of real tension occurred whenever the cameras landed on Mariah Carey or Kanye West in their seats: Both hit-makers seemed poised to go postal if they didn't have an armful of statuettes by the evening's end. But not traditional-bluegrass vet Del McCoury. After being nominated six times since 1983, he was pleasantly surprised when—"in ceremonies held earlier this evening"—The Company We Keep, the 2005 full-length by the Del McCoury Band, was pronounced Best Bluegrass Album.
McCoury, who headlines this Saturday and Sunday, February 25 and 26, at the 13th annual Wintergrass Bluegrass Festival in Tacoma, admits he may have given some consideration to where he plans to display his Grammy. (Answer: in the music room, where the rest of the group—including his sons Rob and Ronnie McCoury—can enjoy it, too.) But that's pretty much all the thought he devoted to his first Grammy victory. After a half century as a professional musician, McCoury gleans more affirmation from appreciative crowds than from entertainment-industry insiders.
"I just like recording good songs, and playing for the audiences," he says humbly. He is not, he insists, a competitive person by nature.
Which is not to suggest that McCoury, 67, lacks drive. He just completed work on a new album, The Promised Land, due out in June. His first-ever gospel set, the disc includes a handful of new compositions, plus several lesser-known selections by the late Albert E. Brumley, the influential shape-note singer and composer responsible for over 800 hymns. McCoury also cut a rendition of "Don't Put Off till Tomorrow," an original by one of his first employers, bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, that has gone virtually untouched since the '50s. "That one has a very harsh message—nobody's probably had the guts to put it on a record since Bill."
In addition to Wintergrass, in recent years the Del McCoury Band has been a prominent fixture at multi-day wingdings like Bonnaroo, MerleFest, and the Newport Folk Festival. For fans, one of the big thrills of such events is the possibility of seeing their favorite artists play impromptu sets together. But does it give McCoury and his band mates the same kind of kick?
"I do enjoy it," he admits. "It's impossible to rehearse, so a lot of times, it catches you by surprise. And it's exciting, because it's something very different for both bands. And since you never know what's going to happen on stage, it's exciting for the audience, too."
That said, if the Grammy folks had asked him to participate in one of the vaunted collaborative performances—à la the U2/Mary J. Blige scream-off—that studded this year's awards presentation, and jam with someone like Metallica, McCoury says he would have politely declined. "I wouldn't do anything heavy and loud like that," he says, chuckling at the notion. "I'm not running down loud music... it's just something I've never been interested in."