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Del McCoury Band brings grammy-winning bluegrass to Meijer Gardens

76-year-old Del McCoury has been a bluegrass master for much of the last half-century, and embodies everything admirable about down home modesty. His band, including sons Rob and Ronnie, are also some of the world's best pickers.
76-year-old Del McCoury enthralls Meijer Gardens with stellar musicianship and sharp wit.

76-year-old Del McCoury enthralls Meijer Gardens with stellar musicianship and sharp wit. /Ryan Yuenger

Additional Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn notes

The duo’s playful banjo picking, paired with the tension and release of Washburn’s vocals captivates the crowd. Washburn refrains: “Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah/ Strummin' on the ole banjo/ and singin' Fe-fi-fiddley-i-o.”


Bela Fleck is best known for his work with the long-running Americana project the Flecktones, an ensemble which fuses and explores elements of jazz, rock and bluegrass. For the last decade, though, Fleck and Washburn have accomplished as much together as they have apart.


Washburn, who studied the Mandarin in college, spent time in China before moving to Nashville where she eventually joined the the brassy alt-country group Uncle Earl. Her solo work is influenced by both the inflection of Chinese folk and the mountain sound yarns of Appalachia. This was showcased in her graceful segue from the serene “Chinese Folk Song” to the thumping murder ballad “Shotgun Blues”.


Some of the songs like “Come All You Coal Miners”, a jeremiad from the labor struggles of 1930’s West Virginia, draws uproarious appreciation, while others like Fleck’s short riff on “I’de Like to Buy The World A Coke”, (“Our Pro-Big Business Song” He chuckled) leads to head bopping and chipper amusement from the audience.


After some self-deprecation, they broke into the instrumental “Banjo Banjo” a track they call their own version of “dueling banjos.” After the jam faded, the chords flew right into another signature, “Little Birdie,” a telltale tune detailing the plight of a mother watching out over and sweeping into the danger that surrounds her newborn chick.


“Croc says, "Little fella don't you know/ It's dangerous in this world alone/ Tales your mama tells are real, now you're going to be my evening meal.”/ just then come the sound of wings/ Momma grabs her birdie and flies/ Has your mama been gone too long?”

Del McCoury Band

Del McCoury Band /Ryan Yuenger

The McCourys: From left, Rob, Del, Ronnie

The McCourys: From left, Rob, Del, Ronnie /Ryan Yuenger

As the sun sets over the crowd at Meijer Gardens, the stage welcomes the wit and good nature of Del McCoury and his homespun band of troubadours, as well as husband-wife duo, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn.

Fleck and Washburn open the show with a compelling and jangly folk melody “Railroad”, immediately setting the tone for an evening of music drawing deep from the well of American roots music.

Throughout the evening, the couple charm the audience with back and forth banter that could come have come off as corny if not for their genuine chemistry. This was especially on display after Fleck dubs himself Abigail’s “Chunky Monkey” during their introductions.

“I don’t think I’ve ever called you that,” Washburn replied, laughing. “It must be Grand Rapids that’s made you like this.”

With their set nearing its end two hours in, Washburn jumped up onto a wooden mat and began clogging for their last song. It brought some much needed inertia to an audience sprawled out for perhaps too long in their lawn chairs, and was met with standing applause.

“I haven’t done this in awhile, I can’t believe they liked it!” Washburn said to Fleck, exhaling. On that note, they bow and give way to the main event.

After a brief intermission, Del McCoury and his band trample in with a the full breadth of the Loving Spoonfull’s “Nashville Cats”, a celebration of Honkey-Tonk digression and young dreams hitched down in Tennessee.

This got many of the sundress, sneaker, and tattoo clad onlookers that filled the venue out infront of the stage, pouncing on their toes, reappropriating it joyously as their own midwestern square dance. McCoury said best in the chorus: 

Nashville Cats, play clean as country water/
Nashville Cats, play wild as mountain dew/Nashville Cats, been playin' since they's babies/
Nashville Cats, get work before they're two.

“I feel like retiring after that,” McCoury chirped following the introduction.

What’s amazing while watching him is how much vitality he stocks into his stage presence. He’s been at it for much of the last half-century, and this elder statesman of bluegrass has honed to a tee everything admirable about down home modesty and allows ample room for his players, some of the best in the business, to take on big songs of their own and steer the vehicle in interesting directions.

The band is slated with Del on guitar, sons Ronnie McCoury and Rob McCoury on the banjo, respectively, Jason Carter tuned to the fiddle, and Alan Bartram on the ever-present Bass.

The band has earned a lot of earned a lot of respect in Americana circles, as well as a loyal fanbase and several awards, including two Grammys for best Bluegrass album.

Drawing attention to the four black suited men beside him, McCoury called on his bassplayer to lead into “The Kentucky Waltz,” a slower swaying lullaby sung with full on classic country twang by Bartram in the purple spotlight.

We were waltzin' that night in Kentucky/ beneath that beautiful harvest moon/ And I was the boy that was lucky/ But it all ended too soon/ As I sit here alone in the moonlight/ I see your smiling face/ And I long once more for your embrace/ In that beautiful Kentucky waltz.

In and out of the set, McCoury fielded song suggestions from the audience, and occasionally replied with the aw-shucks chiming of a few familiar chords and the eventual good humored “Woah now, we have to get this going,” before launching into a signature track.

Sensing it may be time for a little crowd work (or gospel), McCoury asked the audience to sing along to “Working on a Building”, a beautiful and gutsy southern spiritual which blew its last few lines off riding full steams ahead into the whistle-stop saloon cantata “All Aboard.”

McCoury and his band definitely appear to have fun reworking rock songs from artists they enjoy into instrumental harmonies.

“This is a song we played at a little folk Festival called the Newport folk festival, ya’ll ever hear of it?” Del lauded, before lighting up the crowd with Richard Thompson’s classic hot-rod track “Black Vincent 1952.” The song is a joyride and it’s just enough fun to make you wish you never had to come back for gas.

With a last thank you to the crowd, Del and the band retreated backstage, before circling back for an entralling encore with Fleck and Washburn, as they jammed out to applause. 

*Written by Joshua Scott

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