TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Del McCoury leads one of the most popular and respected bands in bluegrass music, The Del McCoury Band, which includes his son Rob on banjo and son Ronnie on mandolin. A singer and guitarist, Del McCoury is now 83 years old, and he spent some of his COVID lockdown time going through an old box of cassettes containing demos of songs various songwriters had sent him. He's recorded a batch of them on a new album called "Almost Proud." Rock critic Ken Tucker says it's a fine, energetic piece of work that also takes a dark turn.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALMOST PROUD")
THE DEL MCCOURY BAND: (Singing) I started life down at the bottom. There were those who kept me there. And I did things I'm not proud of to see if anybody cared. That's the wrong kind of attention. I was young and dumb and loud. Now I'm quiet, and I'm older. Would you believe I'm almost proud, almost proud, almost proud? Somehow, I landed here. I don't know how. Almost proud...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The title song of "Almost Proud" leads off the album, and it's a brisk charmer, one that invites you into an album that will become more moody, even grim, as it proceeds. On this initial tune, however, you can hear what makes The Del McCoury Band so popular - the impeccable banjo playing of Del's son Rob, the sweet melancholy of the mandolin played by Del's son Ronnie and the stringent vocals of Del himself. The central tension within bluegrass music is in its contrast between the strict precision of the playing and the high lonesome emotionalism of the vocals.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE DEL MCCOURY BAND SONG, "HONKY TONK NIGHTS")
TUCKER: A good illustration of this is "Honky Tonk Nights," featuring backup vocals by the country star Vince Gill.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONKY TONK NIGHTS")
THE DEL MCCOURY BAND: (Singing) Listen to the rain. It's callin' out her name. It sounds just like the falling of my tears. But I know just what to do for getting over you with my new friend, whiskey, wine and beer. Honky tonk nights - that's my new life. I'm a whiskey-drinking fool sitting on an old bar stool. But the good news is your memory's fading fast.
TUCKER: Del McCoury has been a prominent figure in bluegrass music since the 1960s, when he first performed in Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. One way in which McCoury has made his own mark on the genre is his interest in changing up the rhythm and tones of the songs he covers. He's interested in having adjacent genres of country music fit into his various projects. On "Almost Proud," he takes a mediocre Kris Kristofferson song from the '70s called "Love Don't Live Here Anymore" and renders it a lovely bluegrass ballad. And I love how on this song, called "Once Again," McCoury boosts the piano into prominence and creates a very fine drinking song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONCE AGAIN")
THE DEL MCCOURY BAND: (Singing) It's been raining for days out my door, coming down like I ain't seen before. That damned old weatherman - he's calling for more. It's been raining for days out my door. I've been drinking to numb the pain, but I can't drown your memory away. That bottle of comfort keeps calling my name. I keep drinking to numb the pain.
TUCKER: Del McCoury doesn't write much of his own material, but this album has two original compositions, and they belie the friendly old man demeanor he presents these days. Both "Running Wild" and "The Misery You've Earned" are about love gone bad, life turned sour. "The Misery You've Earned" is the high point of this album, and it's a startlingly cruel and vindictive song in which McCoury blames a woman he no longer loves for all the unhappiness their breakup has caused. He suggests that right now she may not be feeling the pain he's endured, but he assures her coldly she will. The song is all the more chilling for the simplicity of its melody. Its tale of dread and doom has an almost jaunty air.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MISERY YOU'VE EARNED")
THE DEL MCCOURY BAND: (Singing) The fact that you are gone, this house is not a home, a place to lay my head and tears to shed - I try not let it show. My heart is aching so. I wonder if you know my awful dread. Someday, I'm sure you'll learn the bridge to me you've burned. Then it will be your turn to weep and cry. By then my blues will end - no tears. My heart will mend. But you'll by then have learned the misery you've earned.
TUCKER: The title phrase "The Misery You've Earned" is the narrator's curse upon his lover. I'm glad that we are through, he says toward the end of the song, can't hear you cry. I don't know from where in his soul Del McCoury pulled that song, but it's the work of an accomplished artist who's long past caring what you might think of him. He wants to get everything out while he still has the chance.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the new album from The Del McCoury Band called "Almost Proud." Tomorrow we'll talk about the Sandy Hook tragedy and the battle for truth. Our guest will be Elizabeth Williamson, whose new book is about the torment conspiracy theorists who claim the shootings were a hoax inflicted on Sandy Hook parents. Some were stalked and driven into hiding. She also describes how they fought back, including with successful lawsuits against Alex Jones. I hope you'll join us. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OTHER SHORE")
THE DEL MCCOURY BAND: (Singing) I still wake up, and I'm living. I'm still loving, and I'm giving. But I cry now when I'm singing, and there's always something missing. I never thought that it would be this way. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.