Bluegrass icon Del McCoury playing rare Woody Guthrie tunes

Del McCoury has written music for previously unheard Woody Guthrie music. (Courtesy photo)
Del McCoury has written music for previously unheard Woody Guthrie music. (Courtesy photo)

By Jessica Benes

Del McCoury recorded his first album in 1967 and worked for the Grand Ole Opry before that.

He has won two Grammy Awards and is up for another this year. His history as a bluegrass musician is long and varied.

And even though he is now 75, McCoury hasn’t slowed down. He performs in duets and with his band throughout the year, helps organize his “DelFest” — an annual summer music festival in Cumberland, Md. — and plays for the Grand Ole Opry when he has time.

When discussing life accomplishments, McCoury says he is especially proud of the album he is recording of previously unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics.

McCoury will perform 12 of those songs during a concert at Fort Collins’ Lincoln Center on Jan. 17 .

McCoury played in Tulsa, Okla., a few years ago with Woody’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, who wanted McCoury to play in a tribute concert to her father.

Nora later asked McCoury if she could send him lyrics she had found that Woody had written but never put to music.

“I thought she would send me a few,” McCoury said. “She sent me 26 songs.” He said he isn’t sure if the songs, written from 1935 to 1949, had been lost or how they were recovered.

But it wasn’t difficult for McCoury to put them to music. He has completed 16 songs, and 12 are slated for an album he expects to be released in the fall.

McCoury, who has been performing thes songs for more than a year with his band, said Guthrie wrote about all kinds of funny and sad things in daily life.

One song, “New York Trains,” has been nominated for a Grammy in “Best American Roots.” It’s about Guthrie arriving in New York by train for the first time and traveling the subway.

“He rode the subway a lot and would take his family on the subway,” McCoury said. “Sometimes he didn’t know where they were supposed to get off. He tells it all in the song. He even gets to the end of the line and is pushed off by a cop.”

Another song, “Cheap Mike,” describes how Guthrie a mechanic named Mike once repaired Guthrie’s car.

“He advised if you have something wrong with your car, take it down to ‘Cheap Mike.’ He wrote about everything that happened to him all day long,” McCoury said.

Guthrie dated his lyrics and noted where he was the day he wrote them.

That’s a foreign concept to McCoury, who explained:

“All through the years when I’ve written a song, I’d write the song down but never put the date or never even named the song until I got in the studio.”

On Guthrie’s first day in New York, he wrote the famous, “This Land Is Your Land.”

But Guthrie wrote another song that day, McCourty said, and it’s in the unpublished collection. It’s about women’s hats, except Guthrie spelled it, “wimmin.”

Most women wore fancy hats in the 1930s, and Guthrie described them as looking like “ice cream cones” and having “mousetraps over their ears.”

“The last verse,” McCoury said of Guthrie, “he said he sat down on a curbstone and wrote it all down while he was on the street, and he put that all in the song.”

In addition to the Guthrie songs, McCoury and his band will perform their own work during the second half of the concert. And, as he typically does, McCoury will take requests from the audience. He no longer comes to most of his concerts with set lists; instead, he relies on audience participation to keep his shows interesting and varied.

“We never know what we’re doing until we get up there,” McCoury said.

He said he typically introduces the four other members of the band, including his two sons, Ronnie and Rob, then asks for requests from the audience. McCoury said he believes that because the audience is paying to be there, he wants to ensure they hear what they want.

“Boy, we’ll be in trouble if they ever start requesting other people’s songs,” McCoury said.

And if a fan requests a song McCoury hasn’t played in a long time, he said, he might turn to his band for help remembering the first lines of the song.

“I have fun with the audience,” he said. “They entertain me more than I entertain them. They’re funny, if you just watch them and listen to them.”

Jessica Benes: 970-669-5050 (ext. 530),,

If you go

What: Del McCoury concert

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17

Where: Lincoln Center Performance Hall, 417 W. Magnolia St., Fort Collins

Tickets: $33-$35


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