Cultivating WinterWonderGrass: The Travelin' McCourys
By Alesha Damerville
Images from Travelin' McCourys
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – “I was about 13 when I picked up the mandolin,” Ronnie McCoury says. “I had played the fiddle from nine years old. It’s the same left-hand fingering; the difference being, one is played with a pick, the other with a bow, so it was easier to pick up.”
Ronnie and his brother Rob McCoury are the sons of the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame inductee Del McCoury. “He’s dad, we grew up in Pennsylvania, we owned a farm house but didn’t farm,” Ronnie says. “My dad worked all kinds of jobs but the main one I remember was a logger and my mother worked a factory job. He would take the weekends to play music, before it took off.”
“My brother started at nine too, but he started right on the banjo,” Ronnie says. “When we started playing, Dad never once asked us to practice. We had this common thing when we got into music. We saw how much he enjoyed it and it made us want to really stick with it.”
Ronnie was only playing for about six months when his dad put him in the band.
“They didn’t have a regular mandolin player and I had a little knowledge of what I was doing,” he says. “That’s kind of how I got the job so young. I had just turned 14 and I’m 50 now. I started back then and I’ve been by his side playing all these years.”
“He always had a banjo player or fiddle player so Rob joined in when a bass player quit one time,” Ronnie says. “He played bass for about a year or two at 15, then went straight to the banjo. He’s four years younger than me so I had a little jump on him. It was all about how much fun we had on stage. We’ve both been playing for over 30 years and killing it.”
Ronnie plays with his brother Rob on banjo, Jason Carter on fiddle, and Alan Bartram and Cody Kilby on guitar.
The McCourys and Carter having been playing together since 1992 and with Bartram for about 12 years. “Our newest member’s name is Cody,” Ronnie says. “He’s a heck of a guitar player, a national flat-picking guy. He’s one of those guys who can play anything with a string on it. He’s been with us for a little over two years now.”
“We come from a traditional music background of playing around a couple mics, after plugging in for the first-time things have changed a bit,” Ronnie says. “We enjoy stretching songs out now, kind of jamming out a little. That’s something we didn’t grow up doing. We enjoy it quite a bit; it gives everyone a bit of freedom.”
Bartram was nominated and won 2017 Bass Player of the Year at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards. “He had been nominated a couple times and it’s really rewarding,” Ronnie says. “He didn’t think he would win, so he didn’t go. We were on the road that week; we had one day off, and he wanted to spend it with family. He listened to the award show live via satellite and he won. We’re all real happy and proud for him. He’s a great guy and a great singer.”
The McCourys are playing around 150 shows this
year. “When we get together, things just kind of work itself out,”
Ronnie says. “Someone
brings a new song, they play it and then we all kind of say, ‘This
would be a good place for a solo with the guitar or banjo or maybe the song
should start with the banjo.’ Those things fall together pretty
quickly, then it’s a test on the road, once you’re playing in front of people,
to see if it all comes together.”
“To play for people is a great gift,” Ronnie says. “Wherever the gift that allows you to play comes from, is going to come through on your music. I think we work hard and play well.”
The Travelin’ McCourys have played a few WinterWonderGrass festivals but not in Steamboat Springs. “We’ve never had to endure the real cold,” Ronnie says. “It’s going to be exciting to look out and see all these people in the dead of winter, dressed the way they are, listening to this music.”
“We always have kinship in this community. It’s always good to see the folks that play the music with us and maybe get to jam together somehow,” Ronnie says. “I played a month-long tour with Yonder and we had a ball. We’re looking forward to seeing and playing with them.” WWG organizers are making this dream a reality with the addition of Public Pick, a free afternoon jam session with WWG artists.
“Steamboat is so beautiful,” Ronnie adds. He also looks forward to a nice breakfast at Creekside Cafe. “We had one of the best breakfasts we’ve ever had after 40 years on the road in Steamboat.”
You can catch the hard-driving bluegrass music of the Travelin’ McCourys this February at the WWG Festival.
For more information on the Travelin' McCourys visit http://www.thetravelinmccourys.com
For more information on the festival, lodging and ski passes visit www.winterwondergrass.com