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Paving Their Way One Bluegrass Song at a Time: Exclusive interview with Rob McCoury of the Travelin' McCourys

Oct 20, 2016 04:00PM ● By Nicole Gould

Photo by Jim McGuire

Ronnie and Rob McCoury, sons of bluegrass legend Del McCoury, have developed their own musical path by creating The Travelin' McCourys. As the old saying goes, “Like father, like son.”

The Travelin’ McCourys have just released their first recorded single, “Cumberland Blues” and will release a new single every month, eventually leading to a release of a full album.

“If you can put new material out there, a single once a month, there’s just a lot more to talk about.” – Rob McCoury

The Travelin’ McCourys bring the Grateful Ball with Jeff Austin Band to Rams Head On Stage Monday, October 24th, 7:30 p.mTickets are $35. The Grateful Ball is a unique concert experience with a set from Jeff Austin Band followed by a set from The Travelin' McCourys and ending with a combined set from both bands of all Grateful Dead songs! 

We had the chance to catch up with Rob McCoury, who can be easily recognized as the guy holding the banjo.

Let’s talk about upcoming show at Rams Head On Stage, in which you’ll play a co-set with Jeff Austin on Grateful Dead songs; what’s your personal take on the Grateful Dead catalog and how much has it been a part of your musical development?

Man I’ve listened to the Grateful Dead since I was a kid. I went to a few shows. My older brother went to much more than I did. I guess he’s the one who turned me on to the band. My dad knew Jerry from back in the 60s. I’m a big fan of the Dead, they have a lot of great songs, they kind of lend themselves to the way we play bluegrass in a way. Their songs adapt well to what we do. It should be fun!

You just released a recording of “Cumberland Blues,” and have plans to release more singles each month, leading up to an album. What does this formula say about the way music is produced and released today?

I think that if take the time and make a full album and release it, I don’t think you get as much traction out of it. You need to keep feeding the machine, if you will. You drop an album and people are going to pick and choose the song they want to play off it. Next month they kind of already forgot about it and moved onto the next thing. We’re going back into 60s model, releasing singles so people have something to talk about and play and write about on a regular basis than once a year or every two years.

While you’ve certainly garnered recognition and awards within the bluegrass genre/circle, the McCourys seem to have carved out a nice niche within the jam band scene; how did that develop in your opinion and are you performing for audiences you might not have anticipated originally?

Yeah, definitely. I think what really did it for us, was when we played the Phish Festival in Lake Oswego, New York. Probably about 20 years ago they were fans of my Dad and they did a song or two of Dad’s and anyhow they booked us on their festival. I think that was a great big boost that put us in front of a crowd that would never come to see us. It just kind of grew from there you know. My Dad, he’s widely accepted by the jam market and in turn that’s what did it for us. I’ve been playing in my Dad’s band for 30 years. Our bread and butter in the summer time was playing bluegrass festivals when I first started. Now, we don’t play that many bluegrass festivals. There are all types and genres of music, jam festivals, that’s kind of our bread and butter now in the summer time.

Photo by Jim McGuire


The Grateful Dead and jam band tendencies in general lean toward creating improvisational music and stretching any song out; is that something that the Travelin’ McCourys employ?

Absolutely, yeah. I think that’s a big part of it. That’s what this crowd is into. Bluegrass is typically about three minutes and that’s not nearly long enough for that crowd. They like to stretch things out and its fun to do. It’s a lot of fun to take something and stretch it out and play it. Let everyone have a couple rides on it.

When the McCoury name is on bill, folks think of you father Del, but you’ve carved out an impressive career in and of itself; was it important for you to step out of your father’s shadow or not?

Yeah for sure, it was actually his idea. He told us probably 10 years ago now, you guys need to get something of your own going. If I ever want to not do this or not able, you guys need to have something already in place so you’re not financially sitting there wondering what you’re going to do. We’ll always play music, that’s what we’re all about. If you get something established now, you guys will have security there.

Its worked out great and we stay busy, we work constantly. Between the two bands we work probably 150 days a year. Dad’s been doing duet shows with him and David Grisman. Most times when we are on the road, he’s on the road too, but he’s playing with Dave.

Performing with your brother and father quite often, does blood trump water in terms of musical chemistry? Do you ever feel like you have a “sixth sense” when performing on stage with them?

Yes. Definitely. I mean you do because you’re family. You know my brother and myself grew up almost exclusively playing with Dad and we’ve played with each other more than anyone else. We know how to play together. You can take a brand new song you’ve never played before or try to learn, you kind of know what everyone’s going to do because you’ve been doing it so long and that’s a family thing. Jason Carter who plays fiddle with us for 25 years, he’s pretty much a brother too. We know what he’s doing and Alan Bartram, our base player, been with us for 11 years; that’s a lot of playing music together. You kind of get a read on everyone before it even happens.

Is there a particular artist or group that you’ve played with and would love to collaborate with again?

There been so many of them, we tried a lot of different things with a lot of different people and I’ve enjoyed all of it. Its fun. It’s kind of fun seeing what the next day is, you never know what will happen. I think there’s some talk with us doing a show with Tedeschi Trucks Band; I’m really looking forward to that happening. I’m a big fan of them.

The annual DelFest in Cumberland, MD is now several years strong. Are plans underway for another festival in 2017?

Oh yeah, 2017 is our 10th year, so its going to be a big year. Its really been great, it keeps getting bigger and better. It has become a destination for people. People that have to pick one festival to go to during the year, a lot of people are choosing to come to Del Fest and it’s been incredible. I can’t believe its been 10 years already. Definitely looking forward to that. Not sure who we’re having yet, but it’ll be a big year with even more collaboration. That’s one thing DelFest is about, is a lot of collaborations. One way or another we’re on stage all the time playing with someone!

Lastly, what would you like audiences to take away from your shows?

Gee. I guess number one is that I hope they really enjoyed the music that we’re trying to make and hope they leave there coming to want to see us again and had fun. We couldn’t do what we do without them. People are buying tickets and that’s what’s keeping us on the road.