They're not called The Travelin' McCourys for nothing.
Over the past year, four-fifths of the acclaimed Del McCoury Band — in essence, everyone save Del himself — hit the road to play collaborative performances with such stylistically diverse acts as country star Dierks Bentley and the gospel/groove ensemble The Lee Boys. There also have been plenty of shows that The Travelin' McCourys have played on their own with a quartet lineup augmented by guests drawn from a roster of champion guitar players.
And if that weren't enough, there has been some TV moonlighting by mandolinist Ronnie McCoury with Willie Nelson.
Now that's what you call travelin'.
"We're just trying to branch out a little bit," Ronnie McCoury said. "And my dad, with his blessing, wanted us to try something of our own."
"Dad" is Del McCoury, one of the most honored bandleaders and family men in the bluegrass music business. His career goes back to a tenure with Bill Monroe, but much of the elder McCoury's current reputation centers on an immensely industrious group, The Del McCoury Band, that enlisted the talents of sons Ronnie (on mandolin) and Rob (on banjo) along with longtime fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram.
The Del McCoury Band has always been something of an anomaly. It remains, at heart, a hard-core traditionalist unit built around expert musicianship and father Del's high-mountain tenor singing. But its repertoire and fan base are all over the map. Recordings boasted songs by Richard Thompson, Tom Petty and Robert Cray, while tours and festival dates regularly placed The Del McCoury Band onstage with esteemed jam bands Phish and String Cheese Incident.
That distinctive musical dichotomy set the stage for The Travelin' McCourys.
"What we play kind of depends on where we're at," Ronnie McCoury said. "If we're going to play a bluegrass festival, we're going to be playing bluegrass pretty much. But overall, we stretch things out.
"With my dad's music, we've always pushed things a bit. I guess since I've been playing with him the longest (since 1987), I've seen his music grow by leaps and bounds. We've been able to get in front of a lot of people. And with each record, we developed our own sound more. With Dad's traditional voice and the way we play with our five-piece band, we've been able to arrange songs to where they're not your normal bluegrass-sounding song.
"Having all that in our back pocket lets us stretch a little outside the normal boundaries with The Travelin' McCourys. But when we play at bluegrass festivals, we play what we've been taught."
The Travelin' McCourys have yet to release a full album of their own, mostly because there hasn't been time to work one up. But Ronnie McCoury said one is planned for this year. So is a joint venture mixing the full Del McCoury Band with New Orleans' Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Dad McCoury contributed two vocal performances to the jazz group's splendid benefit album, Preservation, earlier this year.
Then there's Willie. With his performance plate already spilling over, Ronnie McCoury turned up on sessions for Nelson's recent T Bone Burnett-produced album, Country Music, this spring. He also backed Nelson (along with a team of bluegrass and country all-stars) for TV performances on The Late Show With David Letterman, The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson and The View.
"It's funny," Ronnie McCoury said. "I told Willie in the studio that back in the '90s, my dad's band recorded one of his songs called Man With the Blues (for 1993's A Deeper Shade of Blue). So he said, 'Get the words to that and we'll do it.' So everybody starts running around, getting on the Internet. We pulled the lyrics up and Willie said, 'Guys, I wrote this 50 years ago. I've totally forgotten about it.'"
Man With the Blues wound up reborn as the only Nelson-penned tune on Country Music. It seems that great musical minds reappraise their songs once they get the McCoury treatment. Just ask Tom Petty, whose Love Is a Long Road was done up as a shot of straight- up bluegrass on The Del McCoury Band's 1996 album The Cold Hard Facts.
"I was in Los Angeles about a month ago and got to meet Tom," Ronnie McCoury said. "One of his guys introduced us. 'Tom, this is Ronnie. His dad is Del McCoury. They recorded one of your songs.' And Tom said that of everybody that has ever recorded his songs, our cover was his favorite. He said, 'And I'll tell anybody that.'
"It was a rock 'n' roll song, but we interpreted it our way. And Tom got it. Let's just put it that way."