The Del McCoury Band,
The Company We Keep
(Sugar Hill, 2005)

The Del McCoury Band looms as so large a presence on the bluegrass scene -- and beyond; it has attracted a listenership among mainstream-country and rock audiences ordinarily lukewarm or cold to the genre -- that its recording and performances seem all but reviewer-proof. Although his time as one of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys lasted less than a year (in 1963-64), the famously genial Del McCoury has championed Monroe's high-lonesome strain with his own pure tenor lead vocals and smooth harmonies. Through talent and hard work applied over the decades, he's achieved extraordinary success -- artistic and commercial -- and is almost as big a concert draw today as Ralph Stanley or Alison Krauss.

Since the latter 1980s he's been fronting what amounts to a family band, with sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo) assuming ever larger roles as pickers, singers, arrangers and song-choosers. The other band members have been fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Mike Bub (since departed and replaced in August 2005 by Alan Bartram).

While maintaining a solidly traditional base, the band -- thanks to its young members' contributions and Del's open-mindedness -- manages to sound modern. This is, no mistake about it, Monroe-style bluegrass; yet it is in no sense a static copy of it. It's not just the way it's played, even if that's a good part of it; just as much, it's the repertoire. Most notably, the band's acclaimed reading (on 2001's Del & the Boys) of Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" -- till then, precisely nobody's idea of a bluegrass song -- not only succeeds against all odds but must surely rank somewhere among the top-20 bluegrass recordings of the last decade. It is almost certain that Del, whose own listening tastes are more conservative and generational, would never have heard Thompson's sardonic ballad of a biker thug's last will and testament (first recorded on Thompson's 1991 Rumor & Sigh) if his sons hadn't brought to him.

Nothing on The Company We Keep has the shock value -- or, more to the point, the sheer malice-rich, sinister joy -- of "Black Lightning," but then that sort of thing may happen only once in the career even of a band smart enough to allow it. Company's songs are soundly crafted, sometimes by composers working the front line at Nashville's hit factory (Gary Nicholson, Don Schlitz, Harley Allen), and they're nearly all fully respectable. Even so, only the old-fashioned gospel-harmony number, "I Never Knew Life," strikes this listener as more than that, in other words something to carry away and recall with special pleasure when the stereo has ceased playing. Oddly, the least distinguished of the songs, Mark Walton's surely unintentionally self-descriptive "Nothin' Special," is the opening cut.

Company is a "typical" McCoury recording, which is to say the inevitable outcome when experience, professionalism, taste and talent are up to the task at hand. Where the McCoury Band is concerned, failure in that regard is no longer -- if it was ever -- conceivable. I confess, however, that I am looking forward to hearing the new McCoury Band disc, a gospel project (The Promised Land), which the elder McCoury describes as a return to the more unadorned, rural sounds of his early career.

by Jerome Clark
19 August 2006

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