The Travelin’ McCourys 5.13.16

Tractor Tavern
Seattle, WA

Words By Coleman Schwartz
Photos By Scott Shrader (J. Scott Shrader Photography)

Ballard’s intimate Tractor Tavern hosted the Travelin’ McCourys on a Friday evening. While not quite sold out, the show was very well attended. The group, comprised of Ronnie McCoury (mandolin/vocals), Rob McCoury (banjo), Jason Carter (fiddle/vocals), Alan Bartram (bass/vocals) and Cody Kilby (guitar), demonstrated impressive versatility during their set. Ronnie and Rob are the sons of bluegrass legend, Del McCoury. With Del getting too old to continue touring all of the time, the next generation has taken the family name on the road. I had seen them perform once before, with Del, so this was a new experience for me.

The first difference that I noticed was a lot more newgrass influence. This group is all over the place between traditional and progressive styles of bluegrass, but are definitely exploring a more progressive sound overall in Del’s absence. This is a double-edged sword to me, because I’ve always had an easier time enjoying the more progressive (read: jammier) tunes, but it is also tough not to miss so prolific a talent as Del’s when it is removed from the equation. Cody is as good of a replacement as he could be, and I like the fact that he is confident in doing his own thing and doesn’t feel pressured to try and be Del.

This group is an unbroken chain with no weak links. Listening to them play is a rhythmic assault on the senses, with each instrument doing its part to help me completely forget there was no drummer. Jason’s fiddle was perhaps the most glaring example of this, as he alternated between going all-in on the rhythm (percussive, staccato bowing) or all-in on the melody (piercing, legato high notes). Ronnie seemed to play off him the most effectively, as the pair engaged in some wonderful call-and-response style grooves. Ronnie doesn’t take very many solos (perhaps he gives some of them to Jason), but he is an extremely energetic player to the point where I didn’t realize that for most of the show because he was exciting enough without them. His vocals are definitely a highlight of the show, he has a great twangy voice, and more importantly isn’t afraid to poke fun at himself or his voice, either with his lyrics or his delivery. It’s the same dynamic that Goober Pyle utilized on The Andy Griffith Show, only Ronnie does it intentionally and is well aware of what’s going on. The man is a true entertainer.

I also really enjoyed watching the interplay between Rob and Cody. Though Cody has only become an official member somewhat recently, I get the feeling that him and Rob go way, way back. Their internal metronomes are seemingly locked to each other, and this allows them to navigate complex musical landscapes fearlessly, knowing that the other will always be right at their side. When they are playing off each other the hardest, they almost seem to make a point of refusing to look at each other. It was hard enough to believe my ears, but the lack of eye contact lends them an almost-robotic quality.

Obviously there is a lot of interplay between the other combinations of players in the group, but those were my two favorite dynamics to watch during this set. Alan did a brilliant job of unifying everyone and giving them a steady place to meet back up musically once their explorations came to an end. All in all, the McCourys put on a wonderful show that sits right in the middle of the bluegrass spectrum (bluegrass to newgrass). There is something for all types of listeners, and most importantly I get the feeling that they are completely adaptable from end to end of the spectrum, depending on the situation. This is the type of band that could hold up well on a single-mic set, or a fully amplified set with effects. They have the talent and the experience to do it all, as long as they have a willing room of dancers to energize them.

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