The Ronnie McCoury Interview
By Mandolin Cafe
August 19, 2010 - 8:15 pm
Ronnie McCoury is certainly one of the greatest mandolin players to ever play bluegrass music and, more than anyone else, he has skillfully succeeded in bridging the gap between traditional and contemporary approaches to our instrument. As the eldest son of Del McCoury, Ronnie was "borned and raised" to be a bluegrass musician.
I met Del McCoury in 1962 at the first show he ever played with Bill Monroe. Del played the five-string banjo, and let me tell you, he was first rate! The story of how he came to be Bill's lead singer and guitarist is well documented—he and Bill Keith were both hired to play banjo, but fortunately for us all, Del was also a great singer and became one of the best rhythm guitarists in the history of bluegrass.
Del and I became friends and played several gigs together in the mid-sixties. In the spring of 1967, we both became fathers to first-born sons. Monroe Grisman and Ronnie McCoury were born within a few weeks of each other!
Although I'd met Ronnie as a toddler, I first became aware of him as a mandolin picker when he came to California with Del to hang out while we were recording my Home Is Where The Heart Is project in 1987. Shortly thereafter, Del and his band (including Ronnie and his talented banjo-picking brother Rob) helped me tour behind the album. Since then we've shared many memorable musical moments on and off stage and in the studio (he was the guiding force behind the Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza.) It's always inspiring to play with Ronnie and to hear him tear it up as only he can—and he's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet!
Listen while you read
Ronnie McCoury playing Quicksburg Rendezvous from the Del McCoury Band project A Deeper Shade of Blue.
Questions for Ronnie McCoury
Question from Don Grieser: I came across an old Lynn Morris CD with a very young Ronnie McCoury playing on it. Are there any other bands you played in before you joined your Dad's band? Love your playing, and will always remember those workshops at RockyGrass—20 mandolins playing Baltimore Johnny in unison.
Ronnie McCoury: Hey Don, good to hear from you! I like 20 mandos playing Baltimore Johnny in unison myself! To answer your question, I started playing in my Dad's band in 1981 at the age of 14. So I wasn't in any other bands before that. I just recorded with Lynn Morris and she asked me to be on the cover art.
Question from RB250: Loved your Homespun Bluegrass Mandolin DVD. When do we get another? How about one on Monroe Style mandolin, or one on classic mandolin breaks on classic bluegrass songs like what Tony Trishcka did on banjo? I'll buy whatever you put out. See you at Merlefest!
Ronnie McCoury: Thanks RB250! Now that's not a mandolin moniker... are you a closet banjo picker perhaps? Hhhmm! I would like to do another DVD but at the moment have no immediate plans to do one. I'll have to talk to Homespun about it. You certainly gave me some good ideas and now I know I can at least sell one! ;)
Sample clip from the Ronnie McCoury Homespun Video
Question from swampstomper: You are known as perhaps the fastest mandolin player alive, certainly no one can match your clean picking at supersonic tempos. I've read somewhere that David Grisman claims you are just born with fast-twitch hands, but there must be some practice technique for us mortals that will help build speed while still playing clean. Do you have any tips on that?
Ronnie McCoury: Well, Swampstomper, I appreciate your kind words. I started in my Dad's band at the age of 14. All of the band members were much older and seasoned musicians. I found it hard to keep up with up-tempo tunes. My father always told me to keep my wrist "loose as a dish rag" and not to stiffen up. Don't hold the pick too tight and try to stay relaxed. You'll find this will help you build your speed. Try it... and relax... there ya go! Good luck!
Ronnie McCoury with the Del McCoury Band playing Bluegrass Breakdown.
Question from EarlG: I saw Willie Nelson on Larry King and he mentioned he likes to pick with the McCourys. Was he talking about you and your dad and band? What did ya'll pick together? Seems like picking with Willie might be a little intimidating with all he's done and the fancy picking he does. What was it like?
Ronnie McCoury: EarlG, I played on Willie's last recording called Country Music, it was produced by T-Bone Burnett. I had a wonderful time playing with him and have done a few things to promote the project. But otherwise, I haven't played a whole lot more with him. On the project I suggested a tune of his that my Dad recorded in the 90s, I'm The Man With The Blues, and he hadn't sung it in nearly 50 years. I think he enjoyed re-recording it with the band. Willie is very laid back and funny and made everyone feel very comfortable. When playing with him we found out he has such a unique way of phrasing when singing and playing. You just play a solid rhythm track for him and let him "do his thing." It's an experience! A true American original!
Question from Coy Wylie: Would you please comment on your preference for J75's on your Loar and the tone-volume they give you vs. J-74s and other lighter gauge strings?
Ronnie McCoury: Coy Wylie, what a cool name! I came up with the J75s quite a while ago with D'Addario. I told them I'd like a heavier gauge string and they let me create my own. I (we) play pretty hard or aggressive, however you would say it, with the band. We play around omnidirectional microphones that you need to project some volume into as opposed to directional that you play "right on." Lighter gauge strings, for me, don't stay in tune and may not hold up when playing a little hard. I like the .115 E and .16 A the best just for this. Incidentally, I prefer the steel E and A and the EXP D and G, not the brass E and A in the EXP set. I don't like the sound (tone) of them as well. I get them free and "rob" from each set to make one set. I then recycle the unused back to D'Addario. It's good mandolin string karma!
Question from Mandolincelli: Last time I saw you, you were playing your Gilchrist at the Strawberry Music Festival. I wonder what other mandolins you gig with and what makes you choose one or the other for a performance.
Ronnie McCoury: Mandolincelli, I'm having thoughts of playing my mandolin in a gondola in Italy, sipping wine and eating Vermicelli and sauce... mmmm! Sorry, I'm back! Where were we... oh yea! Strawberry Music Festival playing my Gilchrist. Well, I've been playing my 1923 Gibson F-5 the last 4 years and have been using my Gilchrist again lately. We were on the road for month or so with country singer Dierks Bentley playing every night plugged in. I don't have a pickup on my Gibson. These are my two primary mandolins. I feel very lucky to have these incredible instruments.
Question from GRW3: Now that you are in the transition period from the Del McCoury Band to the Travelin' McCourys you are spending more time as the lead singer. How does this affect your rhythm playing?
Ronnie McCoury: GRW3, I would have to say the hardest part of the transition is the varied guitar rhythms we now play with. The Travelin' McCourys don't have a regular guitarist and use whoever is available. I'm so used to playing alongside my father's rhythm that I feel like I do have to concentrate more on it, especially when singing. As far as the mic'd question, I don't always find it as comfortable playing with everyone mic'd. It's hard to get a good balance and someone is usually too loud or not right in the mix. When playing around a central mic you mix yourself and you get better dynamics. In most cases this is easier to play rhythm with. Good questions!
The Travelin' McCourys. L-R: Jason Carter, Ronnie McCoury, Rob McCoury, Alan Bartram.
Related questions from swinginmandolins and Nelson Peddycoart: Thanks for Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza! What are one or two of your favorite moments from that session? Any chance of a second one with some additional personnel like Compton, Sizemore, Steffey, etc.?
Ronnie McCoury: Swinginmandolins and Nelson Peddycoart, thank you, and you're welcome! I had great moments with each one of the Masters. Talk about a dream come true! I would find it hard to narrow down to one or two. The fact that I got to produce it with the Dawg himself, getting to play twin mandolin parts with some of them (like Frank Wakefield), having Bobby Osborne and Jesse McReynolds record together for the first time, Ricky recording his Loar with a U77 to get "the sound" he wanted, Buck White and his tune title stories, Sam and the Dawg's first time recording together and my dad laying the bluegrass rhythm on these guys was awesome!
A heartfelt moment was when we left an open chair for Bobby Osborne for the cluster jam because he had bypass surgery and he said "if I get through it, I'll come back and overdub." And he did. He's a tough one! As far as another volume, I'd like to do it sometime. There are many greats that could be included... someday!
Question from Mike Romkey: What's your approach to soloing on a standard tune such as Rawhide, White House Blues, etc.? Where do you depart from doing things "the way it's always been done" to keep it fresh sounding?
Ronnie McCoury: Mr. Romkey, the tunes you mentioned I have been playing since I first started playing the mandolin in 1981. I do have a certain "formula" I stick to that seems to work for me but I find I stray from "the way it's always been done" depending on the mood that day. When you play as often on stage as we do, you have good days and bad days that influence the playing greatly. You then find yourself trying something new–not always better—but different. That's one way to keep it fresh! Trial and error!
Question from Budrow: Hello, Ronnie, I have been listening to you since the mid 80s. I played in a band for about a year with Rick Campbell and he had a few stories about all of you (they were good). I just wondered who influenced you the most in developing your style on the mandolin.
Ronnie McCoury: Budrow, Rick Campbell may possibly be one of the funniest fiddlers in the history of fiddlers! It's been too long since I've seen him. I would have to say I've been influenced by many. Mainly Bill Monroe and players that he influenced: Wakefield, Grisman, Donnie Eldreth (a former Dixie Pal), my dad (showed me the basics and how to play the melody of the tune), Herschel Sizemore, Bobby Osborne and Sam Bush. Another influence would be fiddler Jon Glik (former Dixie Pal also). When I play or record I kind of hear these guys in my head and together it comes out like me, I guess! I am still influenced by fellows like Mike Marshall and Chris Thile.
Photo shoot for the Ronnie McCoury project Little Mo' McCoury. L-R: Alan Bartram, Ronnie McCoury, Rob McCoury, Jason Carter, Del McCoury.
Question from Darren Bailey: Hey Ronnie, I have a fantastic disc of you and the boys live playing with David Grisman. I listen to it endlessly. Two questions: 1) Which other mandolin player do you find most exciting to play with, and 2), which of your songs do you find most comfortable to let loose on? Thanks for good feelings.
Ronnie McCoury: Hey Darren, I've had the great pleasure of knowing and playing music with "Uncle Dawg" for 20 years now and it is always a wonderful experience. He made me want to write my own tunes more than anyone else. He's so inspiring on many, many levels. As far as the most exciting player to play with, I'm fortunate to get to have the opportunity to play with many of the "greats" and it is always exciting and challenging. It makes you realize how much better you can be and to get back in the woodshed! As far as a tune we let loose on these days, it's My Love Will Not Change with my mandola.
Ronnie with David Grisman at the 2010 DelFest. Photo credit: Jon Hancock.
Question from Mandoist I've been waiting patiently for you to write a wacky Mexican instrumental for Lloyd. Thoughts of Nogales might be a good start? Seems almost an obligation... and some of that Mexican spice on the Family Circle project was 'muy bueno.' Don't know of any other Loar that spent most of its life in ol' Mexico. Figured I'd ask you in public... no pressure though! ¿Quéiensa usted, señor?
Speaking of Mexico, are those some Toy Caldwell (Marshall Tucker Band) flavored licks I hear you and Jason playing on Barbaric Splendor?
Ronnie McCoury: Kevin "ole buddy," I have to admit I'm a mild to medium spicy guy! I can't handle it too hot unless it's on the fingerboard! ;) As you know my Loar came to me from L.A. via Nogales, Mexico. I don't know of any other Loar that may have spent time in Mexico (mine was there 40 years, I believe) A good question for the blog! I'll work on that tune! As far as the licks go, they're just old-fashioned McCoury/Carter stuff! After playing together for nearly 20 years you think alike I guess!
Ronnie with his Lloyd Loar #73006 at WAMU studios promoting DelFest 2009. L-R: Rob McCoury, Ronnie McCoury, Jason Carter, Alan Bartram, Del McCoury. Photo credit: Anthony Washington.
Question from rmartinez: How do you approach the electric mandolin vs. the acoustic? Do you prefer the 4-string electric to a plugged in acoustic mando? I saw a video of you playing with the Lee Boys and really tearing into an electric sounding solo on an F-style. Do you see yourself venturing more into the e-mando world in the near future?
Ronnie McCoury on electric mandolin with Lee Boys
Lee Boys and Ronnie McCoury with Shane Theriot doing Voodoo Chile at the Georgia Theatre, Athens, Georgia, January 21, 2009. Ronnie's solo starts at 1:45.
Ronnie McCoury: Rmartinez, just in the last two years I've been playing more electric mandolin and I enjoy it when the sound is right! It's very different from the way I've played music over my career. The approach is very different. Mainly, you lose all your dynamics you have with an acoustic. That's a tough adjustment to make. A plugged in 4-string and an acoustic 8-string are two completely different instruments. The 4-string has the hot pickup for a louder and more rockin' sound with the ability to bend the strings. You can't do all of this with an acoustic. I'm a fan of the electric guitar and play some so this satisfies my need to "rock out." I am learning a lot about how to play the 4-string and use effects the more I do it. As long as it's fun I'll continue doing it!
Thank you all and I hope I was able to give you some insight on your thoughtful questions.
July 20, 2010
Main Instruments: 1923 Gibson Lloyd Loar, 1981 Gilchrist, 1981 Gilchrist Mandola, PRS electric 4-string (on loan from Cody Kilby) 1933? National Duolian
Strings: D'Addario J-75
Picks: D'Andrea Pro-plec 1.5mm large triangle
Instrument cases: Calton mandolin (from Tony Williamson at Mandolin Central) and Showcase (Nashville maker) for my Mandola.
Microphone preferences: Studio Nueman KM-84 or KM-56. Live we use Nueman BCM-104
Select Ronnie McCoury Discography
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ron(nie) mcmillan - that's about as close as I'll ever get to being ronnie mccoury
> Question from GRW3: Now that you are in the transition period from the Del McCoury Band to the Travelin' McCourys you are spending more time as the lead singer. How does this affect your rhythm playing?
Ronnie McCoury: GRW3, I would have to say the hardest part of the transition is the varied guitar rhythms we now play with. The Travelin' McCourys don't have a regular guitarist and use whoever is available. I'm so used to playing alongside my father's rhythm that I feel like I do have to concentrate more on it, especially when singing. As far as the mic'd question, I don't always find it as comfortable playing with everyone mic'd. It's hard to get a good balance and someone is usually too loud or not right in the mix. When playing around a central mic you mix yourself and you get better dynamics. In most cases this is easier to play rhythm with. <
End of Quote
In this excellent interview I find this question and answer one of the most memorable ones especially when you read it in the context with the last question referring to playing electric mandolin.
It touches on very improtant aspects of acoustic musicianship, amplification, and playing together.
Whatever music you play with others allways means interaction with them. It means that you have to - without necessarily compromising your style - blend the sound of all instruments into a pleasing mix. Rythm is an integral part of that and the quoted answer shows its importance taking the guitar as an example. Blending music on stage is the most improtant thing to achieve a balanced sound. The interview covers the different aspects, especially interaction on stage as opposed to playing either amplified or over single mics (where apparently the soundman dominates the mix and often fails to please the musicians at least).
As a sidenote with regards to the mic preferences: I think the mics are Neumans not Nuemans. And they are great mics indeed. The Hamburg appearance in 1999 (The Mountain tour) was stellar.
The only thing I missed was a comparison between the Loar and the S-hole 1981 Gilchrist (tone-bar) sound.
What a polite guy... and a great player!
I've never had the pleasure of meeting Ronnie,but i can't help feeling it would be another 'Del-like' experience - & he's a great player indeed,