Music

Del McCoury carries a torch for Woody Guthrie, with official blessing

Bluegrass ace Del McCoury.

Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

Bluegrass ace Del McCoury.

There’s something tragically hip about Lou Reed delivering unknown Woody Guthrie lyrics, as he did with other stars on the 2012 tribute LP “Song of Hope,” and a nearly trendy “let’s teach Woody to millennials!” vibe hanging about Billy Bragg and Wilco’s celebrated 1998 collaboration, “Mermaid Avenue.”

But when Del McCoury sings never-recorded Guthrie songs on “Del and Woody,” released in April, the results sound achingly authentic. There’s no pretense in the unassuming 77-year-old’s bluegrass warble. The songs sound, well, like how Guthrie might’ve sounded singing them.

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“I never done that before, you know, writing music to lyrics someone else wrote,” McCoury said, laughing, during a recent telephone interview. “Here all these words are, here in front of me on a piece of paper — the work’s half done. It was fun, mmm-hmm.”

McCoury, small and compact with a coifed white pompadour, has an innocent laugh, speaks with a country lilt, and ends many of his statements with “mmm-hmm.” Questions are answered with a “yes, ma’am” and “no ma’am.” Onstage, as in the performance he’ll give at the sold-out Newport Folk Festival on Saturday, he’s apt to don a performer’s uniform from another era: jacket, tie, pressed slacks.

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“Isn’t he the sweetest?” said Nora Guthrie, who provided McCoury with her father’s lyrics. “I think I have a crush on him. He’s such a gentleman.”

The bluegrass patriarch’s old-school manner is one reason Guthrie tapped him to set to music the lyrics of 12 previously uncirculated songs by her father. “Lots of Woody’s lyrics have the same style as Del’s — very gentlemanly, very Midwest humor, Guthrie said. “Who else can sing ‘Ain’t a Gonna Do’ and not sound phony?”

As founder and director of the Woody Guthrie Archives, Guthrie is the guardian of her folk-icon father’s legacy and memorabilia, including notebook after notebook filled with unrecorded lyrics. For decades she’s aimed to match her father’s songs with suitable artists. The Dropkick Murphys’ interpretation of “Shipping Up to Boston” became something of a Red Sox anthem. For other songs, she’s cast Lucinda Williams or John Mellencamp.

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She has some set aside for her father’s biggest champion, Bob Dylan, she said, if he ever wants to try his hand at them.

“He’s so busy with his own stuff,” Guthrie said. “I have a couple that I’m saving in my back pocket just for him — some that would be very much [suited] for him. Maybe down the road.”

When Guthrie heard McCoury perform at the 2009 Newport Folk Festival, she recalled, “I had the feeling of coming home. Back to Woody.” Most of the songs she gave McCoury involve what she described as “my dad’s first impressions of a hillbilly coming to New York for the first time.”

For instance, “The New York Trains” is about the confusion of traveling around the city: “We hooked a train and rode an hour to see the Bronx Park Zoo/ And landed out in Brooklyn on Utica Avenue.”

“He was wide-eyed,” Guthrie said of her father’s first week in New York. “He was so innocent. The songs [pertain to] an outsider’s impression of New York. I thought Del was ripe for that.”

You’d be hard-pressed to hear McCoury’s high-pitched croon on the album’s “Californy Gold,” “Hoecake Fritters,” and “Dirty Overalls” and not think the tunes have been sung on porches since Dust Bowl days.

In the liner notes and online, you can see Guthrie’s handwritten lyrics, neatly printed on notebook paper, complete with his own misspellings: “wimmen’s hats,” “boght a ticket.” McCoury’s croon conveys that same innocent twang. “In terms of authenticity, Del is it,” Guthrie said. “I didn’t want anyone imitating a drawl; I didn’t want it to sound like they’re making fun of hillbillies — I wanted someone real.”

‘I didn’t want it to sound like they’re making fun of hillbillies — I wanted someone real.’

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Invited by Guthrie to interpret her father’s songs, McCoury said he felt honored. “But I thought, boy, I don’t know if I should mess with Woody Guthrie! But she wanted me to do it, so if she wants me to do it, I guess it’s OK.”

The Grammy-winning Del McCoury band — which includes McCoury’s two sons, Ronnie and Rob — recorded “Del and Woody” at the Butcher Shoppe, a Nashville studio co-owned by John Prine. The bandleader said he doesn’t have a favorite track on his album, but a few stand out — “Wimmen’s hats,” for one.

“He had his own way of spelling, but he was a smart guy,” McCoury said, laughing. “Woody, he was a true songwriter. He didn’t write because he had to, he wrote because he loved to, you know.”

He never met Woody Guthrie in person. Born in York, Pa., in 1939, Delano Floyd McCoury started out playing guitar for Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1963, just as Guthrie was nearing the end of his life, battling Huntington’s disease; he’d eventually succumb in 1967. McCoury has received many accolades, including a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2011.

“If things had turned out different in terms of the Dust Bowl, the blacklist, my dad could’ve ended up in a band just like Del McCoury’s,” Guthrie reflected. “He would’ve loved a band like that.”

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com.
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