To call the Travelin’ McCourys underdogs in the world of bluegrass music would be disingenuous, to say the least. As the offspring of bluegrass legend Del McCoury, siblings Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob McCoury (banjo) have performed alongside their father since the 1980s, a run that includes two Grammys and 31 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Awards for the elder McCoury.
It was a run so successful, in fact, that it gave their dad pause when considering a future for his sons that was contingent on his continued good fortune.
“I had mentioned to my wife when I was in my 60s, because they were depending on me so much, I should get them something of their own, just in case I either decide to quit or am forced to quit due to sickness or whatever,” Del McCoury, 80, tells Billboard. “My manager — they’re the ones who come up with all the ideas, you know, the managers — said he wanted to get the boys together and offer to manage them, but would find them a different booking agent from the one we were already using for me. They could still depend on me for work because I was still working pretty heavy, but they could book their own shows around mine…Now, they’re on the road more than I am.”
The steady work that comes with juggling two demanding tour schedules may be the key to the Travelin’ McCourys success: after 10 years of touring, their 2018 self-titled album debut has garnered the band its first Grammy nomination for best bluegrass album.
Ronnie McCoury tells Billboard, “I’ve been a Grammy member for years, and [being nominated] was a thought that had never crossed my mind, reeling off a list of albums also released during the Grammy eligibility period, including sets by his father, the Earls of Leicester, Hot Rize and Rhonda Vincent, all of which he considered frontrunners. None of them were nominated, and I just scratch my head on how we got it. I’m not going to knock it, but it’s a surprise.”
One advantage that the band, which also includes fiddler Jason Carter, bassist Alan Bartram and guitarist Cody Kilby, may have over its competitors is the members’ ability — and desire — to stretch outside the bluegrass genre, an impulse that has led what was originally planned as a one-off collaboration in 2016 with jam band Jeff Austin Band as a bluegrass-ified tribute to the Grateful Dead, dubbed the Grateful Ball, into a series of tours that has seen the brothers combine their talents with other acts to play Dead tunes, while also introducing their own music to a new audience.
“The boys play a lot of places I wouldn’t be able to play in, due to their expanding their sound to a different audience, and a younger audience,” Del McCoury says. “It’s just a matter of taste, but it boils down to being a great musician. A lot of great musicians find work on the jam band circuit, and they tell me how much they look up to my boys.”
“I know that the Grateful Ball did get a lot of attention, and we did those shows for the past two years or so, and people do like those songs,” Ronnie says. “Those songs lend themselves to being done as bluegrass numbers, because so many of the guys in the Dead played bluegrass during their careers, so they work well with the sound that we do.”
In the end the greatest attribute that the elder McCoury pushing his sons out of the nest may have given them was their ability to juggle multiple requests for their act. When asking the Travelin’ McCourys what their touring future may look like after a Grammy win, Ronnie admits there may be some changes in store for the band if that comes to fruition.
“I know that we have won two Grammys with my dad, and a win definitely elevates [your demand] some,” the mandolin player says. “My dad still sounds and plays great, and still has the energy to do it all. We’re really concentrating on a lot of shows for him this year, but also it’s starting to look like this could be a big year for the Travelin’ McCourys. I guess time will tell, but I know our booking agents are hard on the phone right now.”