Q&A: Bluegrass Legend Del McCoury on Interpreting Guthrie
When Nora Guthrie, founder and director of the Woody Guthrie Archives, heard Del McCoury perform at the 2009 Newport Folk Festival, she heard the voice she wanted to sing her father’s songs. “I had the feeling of coming home. Back to Woody,” she told the Voice. Although the folk icon died in 1967, just a few years after McCoury had gotten his start, McCoury’s hillbilly back-porch warble conjures the same authentic spirit that Bob Dylan and other Guthrie fans so love.
McCoury’s latest album is Del and Woody, a collection of interpretations of never-before-heard Guthrie lyrics, largely about the folk legend’s wide-eyed first days in New York City. It’s an innocence that clearly spoke to McCoury: Born in 1939 in York, Pennsylvania, Delano Floyd McCoury started out as one of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in ’63, eventually going solo, forming his own outfit with the Grammy-winning Del McCoury Band, and founding his own bluegrass festival, DelFest. He’s won thirty-one International Bluegrass Music Awards and is nominated for six more this year. In 2010, he received a National Heritage Fellowship lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts; the next year he was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
In anticipation of his show with mandolin virtuoso David Grisman at City Winery on August 21, we talked to McCoury about the making of his remarkable record.
Village Voice: How did Del and Woody get started?
Del McCoury: I’ll tell you what happened. Nora Guthrie came to me and said, “Would you mind writing music to some songs?” I was really honored. But I thought, boy, I don’t know if I should mess with Woody Guthrie! But she wanted me to do it, so if she wants me to do it, I guess it’s OK.
She sent me some songs and we went in the studio and recorded them. I’ve never done that before, writing music to lyrics someone else wrote. Here all these words are, here in front of me on a piece of paper — the work’s half done! I need to get more people to do that for me. [Laughs]
What did it feel like to hold these original lyrics in your hands?
It was really something, [to know] that this guy wrote on this page in 1935. It’s a special thing. And he had a way with words. It’s funny, you know — he was from the country, and he probably talked like someone from the country, and he’d spell [phonetically]. He has one title, “Wimmen’s Hats.” He had his own way of spelling, but he was a smart guy.
Some [songs] were in his own handwriting; some are typed out. He wrote about everything he saw and heard — he was a true songwriter. He didn’t write because he had to, he wrote because he loved to, you know? Usually, all throughout my career, I’d say, “I’m going to the studio to do a record,” and they say, “We need more songs,” so I have to go back and write, because I was forced to write. But Woody, that’s a true songwriter.
How long did the project take?
[Not] very long. I have a little tape recorder, about as big as a cellphone, and when I got a melody and key, I’d sing it into this thing, because if not, tomorrow I’d forget the melody. Once I had them all on this little tape recorder, my son Ronnie — he’s good at arranging instrumental parts — he’d say, “Oh, the fiddle ought to play this part, the mandolin here.” I don’t think we had one rehearsal before we went to the studio; it was pretty quick. We recorded it in the Butcher Shoppe [a Nashville studio co-owned by John Prine]. The reason they call it the Butcher Shoppe, it’s an old slaughterhouse. They brought cattle and hogs in there.
Do you have favorite songs on the record?
I don’t know if I have favorites. I like a variety of moods — sad, happy, uptempo, slow. I like a record that way. [But] one I recorded, “Wimmen’s Hats” — [Guthrie] was really excited about all these women wearing the fashionable hats in this big city. [When the Oklahoma native first arrived in New York City] he sat down on a curbstone and he described what those hats looked like to him. [Laughs] And you wouldn’t think a guy could write a whole song about women’s hats, but he did.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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