Rob McCoury set to release first solo album in August
Strike up a conversation with Rob McCoury, and it won’t take long for you to realize that you’ve met one of the most easygoing musicians around—a guy who’s happy to chat with just about anyone on just about anything, or to just quietly watch and enjoy what’s going on around him. When he puts on his banjo picks, though, it’s another story. “My first love will always be traditional bluegrass,” he says with a smile. “When it’s right, there’s just nothing better. I love the simplicity of being able to take four or five guys, get ‘em out, tune ‘em up and play.” And when that happens, watch out, because in Rob McCoury’s hands, the banjo becomes just what the title of his album says: a five-string flamethrower.
Though The 5-String Flamethrower is McCoury’s first solo album, he’s hardly a newcomer. Indeed, there are only a few banjo players today who have been heard by as many audiences. As a member of the award-winning Del McCoury Band and its second-generation alter ego, the Travelin’ McCourys, he’s a gold-plated member of bluegrass music’s royalty. But while he cheerfully confesses that he’d been thinking about it for years—and laughingly adds that it took almost two years from start to finish—Rob was in no hurry to get the job done. And when he did, he made an album that seems likely to put an end to his status as the most under-appreciated yet highly visible banjo players around—and to do it, characteristically, by paying tribute to his banjo heroes, including his own father.
The tribute—though not the record itself—begins, logically enough, with Earl Scruggs, the player who started it all. McCoury blisters his “Foggy Mountain Chimes,” but also nods in his direction again by dishing up a relaxed version of “John Henry” that, like Scruggs’, is played out of the rarely-used D tuning. “Foggy Mountain Banjo is arguably the greatest banjo record ever made,” he says, “and Earl had a variety of stuff on there—‘Home Sweet Home’ in C tuning, and ‘John Henry’ in D. It’s one of the things that made him so great.”
Others to make the cut include Don Reno, who turns out to be one of the best-represented of the bunch with “Charlotte Breakdown,” “Banjo Riff” and, perhaps most memorably, “Feudin’ Banjos.” “When I started writing down all these tunes,” Rob says, “I kind of surprised myself. I looked the list over, and I spotted a lot of Don Reno tunes. Well, when you’re playing stuff a lot, you don’t always pay attention to where you might have learned it from, but I looked at that list and thought, I’m putting some Don Reno tunes on here. As a kid, it was Earl all the way, but as I got a little older and I started hearing these great Reno & Smiley records, I thought, some of that is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.”
The legendary Sonny Osborne shows up, too, both figuratively and literally, as Rob both recorded his “Siempre” (with brother Bobby Osborne on hand) along with the previously unrecorded “Jericho,” and momentarily enticed Sonny out of retirement to lay down the opening to “We Could.” So do recent Hall of Fame entrant J. D. Crowe (“Blackjack”), banjo buddy Larry Perkins (“Northwest Passage”) and another under-appreciated giant, Walter Hensley (“Sugar Creek”).
But while The 5-String Flamethrower puts Rob’s banjo front and center, it doesn’t neglect the other side of the banjo’s role in a bluegrass band—accompanying the vocals that lie at the music’s heart. Here, too, McCoury looks to his heroes—and again, his dad makes the list. Del’s rendition of “I’ve Lost You” serves to highlight Rob’s understanding of the lessons Scruggs taught in this regard, while “We Could,” sung by Bobby Osborne, not only drives home his mastery of them, but features his own vocal contribution, and does it on a song that’s near to his heart—the one played at his wedding to wife Lisa years ago.
“It’s crazy to have so many of my heroes in my address book,” Rob says, but while he may have gotten his introduction to them through his dad, his attitude—a unique combination of respect, friendliness and eagerness to learn—has turned the introductions into lasting friendships that give him a unique perspective. Indeed, whether he’s having a cup of coffee with Sonny or hanging out backstage with the likes of the guys in Leftover Salmon, the String Cheese Incident or with Keller Williams, Rob’s the same guy, one of just a handful equally at home in the center of bluegrass or out on its edges.
“I used every cut we recorded on this album,” Rob McCoury notes, and while that’s a little unusual—artists frequently “over-cut,” then pare down to the best of the bunch for the final selection—it’s typical of his no-nonsense approach, and emblematic of the justified confidence he has in his ability, and in the ability of his colleagues in the Del McCoury Band, to deliver. There are a lot of banjo players out there these days, but there’s only one Rob McCoury, and when he calls his banjo The 5-String Flamethrower, well, it lets you know exactly what you’re going to get.