On Saturday night, the Del McCoury Band lived up to the name of WDVX's World Class Bluegrass concert series at Maryville College's Clayton Center for the Arts. In front of a two-thirds-full auditorium, the band showed that they're probably the best traditional bluegrass band in the world.
It's probably not fair to make comparisons, but the set by opening act Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver highlighted just what makes the McCoury Band so great--the headliners outpaced the supporting act at every position, instrumentally and vocally, and their focus on the classic sound invented by Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys in the 1940s made Lawson and his band's hodgepodge of traditional and contemporary bluegrass, country, and gospel seem messy and imprecise. When Del and the boys kicked into their thrilling version of Monroe's standard "Bluegrass Breakdown," their third song, it was clear that they were in a league of their own. McCoury and his band sound and look like the Grand Ole Opry; Lawson and Quicksilver resemble a band from Branson, Mo.
The McCoury Band has several advantages over Lawson and his group--McCoury played with Monroe back in the early '60s, and he has one of the finest bluegrass tenors ever. But the big difference seems to be consistency--the longest-tenured member of Quicksilver has been in the band eight years, while the newest member of the Del McCoury Band, bassist Alan Bartram, has been in the band the same amount of time. The rest of McCoury's band--his sons Rob (banjo) and Ronnie (mandolin) and fiddler Jason Carter--have been playing together for more than 20 years. The group's harmonies are impeccable, and the members of the band move around a single vocal mic like clockwork.
It's not just the band's traditional bona fides that makes it great; the DMB exhibits a kind of old-fashioned show-biz professionalism, too, and it's a genuinely talented and cohesive quartet. But very few bands are still working in the classic style that McCoury has been committed to for more than 50 years, and none of them do it with the skill and panache that he and his band display. McCoury's turning 75 in a few weeks, but here's hoping for another 50 years in the spotlight.