This September marks the 100thÂ anniversary of Bill Monroeâ€™s birth, and not surprisingly, there have already been plenty of tributes to the Father of Bluegrass Music, with more still to come.Â Â But when listeners turn toÂ Old Memories: The Songs Of Bill Monroe–released digitally September 27thÂ with a vinyl release following on October 25th–what they hear wonâ€™t be the result of a carefully crafted campaign, but the result of a decision that was as spontaneous as it was inevitableâ€”because for Del McCoury, Bill Monroeâ€™s legacy isnâ€™t just a matter of history, but something thatâ€™s as immediate and personal as the guitar he picks up every time he gets ready to play.
â€œI had done songs of his on different albums I made through the years,â€ says McCoury, who served a life-changing year with Monroeâ€™s Blue Grass Boys from 1963 to early 1964.Â Â â€œBut Iâ€™d never really thought about doing a whole album until the day we were flying home from the Grammy awardsâ€”and by the time we got to Nashville, Iâ€™d made a pretty good list of what I wanted to do.Â Â I didnâ€™t want to do a lot of things that everybody had already done; I wanted to do somethings that werenâ€™t real popular but were really good.Â Â Some were songs Iâ€™d never heard him sing, some were songs that heâ€™d sing on a showâ€”and some were songs that he sang on the record, but he made me learn the lead.Â Â And I wanted to do them in the same keys he did, because if you change that, you just donâ€™t have the same sound he had on them.â€
The result is a set that perfectly captures the essence of Bill Monroeâ€™s musicâ€”and does it in a way that stands head and shoulders above the crowd.Â Â For when Del McCoury lifts his voice to sing â€œIn Despairâ€ or â€œLive And Let Live,â€ what comes out is what he learned to sing standing next to Monroe on stage, tempered by another few decades of bluegrass tradition; when he tackles a song like â€œHeavy Traffic Ahead,â€ he remembers his brother bringing that 78 RPM record home from the store when it was first released; and when he harmonizes with son Ronnie on the Monroe-Hank Williams gem, â€œIâ€™m Blue, Iâ€™m Lonesome,â€ family and tradition blend perfectly as he sings the masterâ€™s part while Ronnie takes over the part Del used to sing himself with Monroe.
That intimate knowledge of Monroeâ€™s styleâ€”and of his repertoireâ€”helps to makeÂ Old MemoriesÂ a truly unique collection.Â Â â€œI put more runs in my guitar playing for this one,â€ McCoury notes.Â Â â€œBecause, you know, Bill really liked Edd Mayfieldâ€™s playing, and Edd played runs all the time.Â Â Â So without even thinking about it, I think I played guitar on this record more like the way I played when I was with Billâ€”I even took a break on â€˜Used To Be,â€™ because Bill had Charlie Cline take a solo on that one.Â Â And I got some songs that you donâ€™t hear too often, like â€˜Lonesome Truck Driver Blues.â€™Â Â That one kind of hit home to me, because I used to drive a truck myself, and there are a lot of things in that song about what a truck driver goes through.â€
Backed as always by his ace Del McCoury Bandâ€”son Ronnie on the mandolin, son Rob on the banjo, along with long-time fiddler Jason Carter and six year veteran Alan Bartram on bassâ€”McCoury works his way through a generous 16-track set that nods to the show he played with Monroe by starting with a quick â€œWatermelon On The Vineâ€ and concluding with a bit of a favorite closer, â€œYâ€™all Come.â€Â Â In between there are well-known classics like â€œClose Byâ€ and â€œRose Of Old Kentucky,â€ obscurities like the Hank Williams-penned â€œAlabama Waltz,â€ rarities like â€œThe Girl In The Blue Velvet Bandâ€ and â€œTrain 45â€â€”Monroe was one of the few to record the tune with lyricsâ€”and much more.Â Â But whether theyâ€™re staples of the bluegrass repertoire or resurrected rarities, what each has in common is an incomparable authenticity, bestowed in equal measure by Del McCouryâ€™s personal connection to Monroe and his music, and by his unalloyed musical integrity.Â Â And in the end, that makesÂ Old Memories: The Songs Of Bill MonroeÂ not just the tribute to Bill Monroe that itâ€™s intended to be, but a tribute, too, to the newest member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fameâ€”Del McCoury.