By Brady Cooling
Most musical collaborations in the industry today are overrated and overhyped. Period. Festivals use this to drum up ticket sales, allow unique-unheard of collaborations, allowing more expression and improvisation from the musicians, but it is usually rushed and falls short of something remarkable.Placing musicians together to cover a historically relevant figure in history or otherwise era of music is difficult to do successfully. The best collaboration I and anyone else could see this year in music is that of The Del McCoury Band performing unreleased songs written by Woody Guthrie. Both of these men are very different in their beliefs, time period, but each has had a lasting impact on the world of roots-based music and truly portraying America with their lyrics and musicianship. Both dealt with the hardships of America during their respected time periods: Guthrie from the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, and Del throughout his early years in the 1950’s and 60’s and beyond. They may be more connected then imagined with Del’s real name being “Delano” after FDR during the WWII period and Woody being such a prolific political and social figure involved in communism and anti-fascism as a songwriter. Names that come to mind when you think of great american songwriters: Woody Guthrie, Townes Van Zandt, and Bob Dylan among others. I couldn’t think of a more prolific american songwriter in the world of bluegrass and music as a whole then Del McCoury to be added to this last. This is easily one of the most historic collaborations ever, at least posthumously that is, with the lyrics and passion from Woody, and the exquisite musicianship from Del and his band. I couldn’t think of a more well renown and deserving group then this. Del never met each other, and would not have had the chance, but could you imagine if they would have? Over 60 years represent the end of Woody Guthrie’s career in 1956 to the date of this album’s release; it is opposite to see how short of a career Guthrie had compared to Del’s that has lasted over five decades.
Del’s newest album cleverly titled “Del and Woody” was released on April 15th the same day as the rescheduled show in Frederick, MD was set to take place after a blizzard on the original date in January. Frederick, MD was my childhood hometown for the first 12 years of my life and is a place I hold special to my heart, it is also nearby where Del was born in York, PA, and ultimately where he first got a start in bluegrass in Baltimore, MD. Delfest is also only an hour and a few minutes away from this show too which symbolizes the connection Maryland has to bluegrass and how Delfest is right around the corner; one of the best feelings ever. This show was very special to me as I promised my grandfather who has cancer I would get him tickets to the show since he is such a fan of Del. 3 months is a long time to wait for someone with cancer, as time is especially not guaranteed, which somewhat is in line with Woody suffering from Huntington’s Disease for the later years of his life and ended his career sadly. Out of the hundred shows I will see this year this will be at the top of my mind for a long time, and I know how much it means to him as I could see and feel the happiness he experienced from hearing the music and love from the room. This is what music is all about: healing, love, compassion, and being with people you love and care about.
Video by Marty Dougherty
The songs performed by Del and his band consisting of his sons Ronnie (mandolin) Rob (banjo), Jason Carter (fiddle) and Alan Bertram (bass) is world class, they have won every award possible for bluegrass and have recently joined the Grand Ole Opry. The McCoury is legendary in bluegrass with a full lineage of family history in this genre and the impact they have had, very similarly to the Guthrie family tree: son Arlo, daughter Nora and his wife Marjorie. Both have continued to be celebrated with festivals and foundations dedicated to them and their mission of supporting the arts, scholarship and charitable works with Del having Delfest in Cumberland, MD with The Del McCoury Foundation. Woody with the Woody Guthrie Foundation, and his own Folk Festival held in Oklahoma near his hometown. Both are connected deeply to where they are from and who they truly are and the legacy is heralded and allows the world to cherish and celebrate the two.
Each song by Guthrie was unreleased and written from 1935-49, Woody’s daughter Nora personally requested Del to play and work the songs with his own unique touch and amazing band to back him. The Weinberg Center erupted once he took the stage and opened up with the classic “Travelin’ Teardrop Blues” as Del’s smooth and one of a kind voice hit the high notes with the crowd applauding each time. The band split this show into two segments over their nearly two hour continuous set with the first being Del and Woody and second being The Del McCoury Band. The band began to discuss the history of Woody and how Del was approached to do this project at the young age of 77 at this current time. Del went into the track “New York Trains” which showed the story of Woody coming out to the Big Apple from California and having trains, people, and rushing around, how expensive and overwhelming the city was. Next up was Del talking about him using a teleprompter to show the lyrics, just in case he forgot, even though we will always love him, and how he did 12 songs out of nearly 30 to choose from that Nora gave him. He went into a comical story called “Cheap Mike” about a mechanic Woody went to who would do work on his car for cheap, but the only problem was you never knew how good it was going to be. “Ain’t a Gonna Do” tells about “cornbread and creek water” and some of the things that Woody used to eat during the Great Depression and how they were not that good to eat; showing off his sense of humor once again and letting Del and the boys play a very upbeat song to fit their style and allowing Ronnie and Jason to trade off on lyrics in the chorus. It wouldn’t be a bluegrass show without a sad ballad, and that is exactly what was delivered in “Left in This World Alone” about a man who had no home and nothing at all; very typical about the Dustbowl which Woody frequently wrote about, and lived through and times of intense poverty and the hobo lifestyle around trains and rambling out west. Very fitting for this area of the country with a very historical reference to trains and the mountains of Maryland and beyond.
“Californy Gold” tells about a woman who stole all of man’s gold he mined in the Gold Rush and was using it to live the high life, while he struggled to make it in the world; another extremely humorous song that Woody showed instead of some of his more depressing and real world situations. What would a bluegrass show be without a tale of love? Del addressed the audience with the band’s introductions as they rolled into “Because You Took in Out of the Rain” on the heels of Rob McCoury’s banjo roll and the father-son duo of Del and Ronnie singing lead vocals together which is one of my favorite things to ever see; and how special it would have been to see Woody and his song Arlo sing and play on a track together. This was another light tune with the soft voices of Del and Ronnie singing about a man who was sad and his life had little purpose until he met this particular lady and everything turned around much like the weather; opposite of “Californy Gold” where the woman destroyed the man’s life and he did not want to see her again. Woody brought the lyrics back to his political nature with a working man’s song in “The Government Road” about building much of the roads that connected the east to west in the US and partially how we would travel around the country to work. In light of the working man, Woody showed how the man would continuously do this until it was done only to have to start again no matter what; very fitting since he was so involved in protesting for the rights of workers and unions. Del got this tune off with a very deep, bellowing voice to contrast the chorus sung by son Ronnie, Jason Carter, and Alan Bartram to fit a very distinct four part harmony for this tune. Continuing with the theme of labor and working man’s tunes was “Dirty Overhalls,” which Del remarked was about overalls, and was how Woody wrote it down on the lyrics so he would stick to it! Another story about a man who has worked for weeks straight, and has nothing to show for it except his dirty overalls and how his boss lives the luxurious life and steals away the women because he has money. The lyrics even mention throwing “the money man in jail” because he took away the worker’s money and gal.
Next, Del sung about family, which he knows best, with “Family Reunion” a very light song in which a reunion is met with sadness for some family members who are not there, due to other plans they had, the winds blowing them elsewhere, and just them not being on the planet anymore. It is a very real scenario in which a family can find it hard for every member to get together and celebrate, but it is always best to enjoy whatever time you have with whichever family members are present and let life continue. “Wimmen’s Hats” brought Woody’s unique sense of humor back to the last few songs of this set about some of the crazy hats women used to wear of high society in New York City he experienced during his second day in the city; Del remarked that he wrote this song that day on a curb outside of a store. The lyrics comically talk about how some of the women look like with their ridiculous hats: ice cream cones, serpents, baskets, sacks, and talking about how consumerism and wealth was in the city based on hats and the clothing people wore. Del discussed how Woody could describe people and situations better then everything possible; Del remembered listening to some of Woody’s songs on the radio. Woody wrote “Little Fellow” after the birth of one of his kids Del mentioned to the audience after doing some more story telling and saying hello to some of his relatives in the crowd. This song was a very heartwarming tale of Woody writing to his child about their life so far and how he looks just like him and his mother, and he began his time in the world with a smile; the best way to be! The finale of the Woody/Del set ended with “Hoecake Fritter” a very fast-paced song about a cornmeal dish in which Del and the band sped the tempo up greatly and allowed each member to show off their musicianship one last time before starting with their own material.
With this part of the show ending, Del and his band showed how they truly are masters of bluegrass and why Nora would want Del to be the person who continued the legacy of Woody Guthrie with these songs that had never been before heard. Throughout the show, their was a large screen that showed the actual lyrics handwritten by Woody himself, pictures that portrayed each song as it was sung. Myself and so many others saw these songs take a life of their own, and you could picture Woody singing these songs just as perfectly as Del did, this project was over 70 years in the making from the time he first wrote these songs, and boy am I glad this happened.. This is an album and collaboration that I will remember forever that combines two of the greatest songwriters and musicians ever into one, “Del and Woody” is an American treasure that every lover of Americana, roots, blues, bluegrass and music should own and treasure just like the two men it polarizes into a single soul and guitar. Thank you Woody. Thank you Nora. Thank you Del McCoury.