For the 2nd week The Del McCoury Band’s Del & Woody, a collection of lyrics left behind by Woody Guthrie and put to music by McCoury, reached #1 on the Billboard Bluegrass chart. As best we can tell (with help from the Woody Guthrie Center), a few songs of Woody’s have charted on radio before, but no project that included only his songs has ever risen to the top of the Billboard album chart. McCoury—who at 77 is no stranger to the top of the charts himself—says he is proud that it was his unique collaboration with the world-acclaimed folk bard of the depression that pulled Woody to the top.
Del & Woody was the brainchild of Woody’s daughter, Nora Guthrie. Upon hearing the Del McCoury Band, she recalls, she had a feeling that Del would be the right man to write music to some of her father’s lyric sheets. Still, it wasn’t until the Newport Folk Festival’s 50th anniversary in 2009 that she zeroed in on the bluegrass patriarch’s unique fitness for what became Del And Woody. “After hearing Del's show,” she says, “I remember thinking that if my dad had had a band, it would very possibly have sounded very much like Del’s.” An invitation sent to Del to perform at a Woody Guthrie Centennial concert in Tulsa a couple of years later gave her the opportunity to hear him singing a few of her father’s songs—“I think Del’s ‘So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh’ is the best version I’ve ever heard,” she notes—and the deal was sealed.
For McCoury, Guthrie’s name was mostly unfamiliar, though his songs weren’t. “It took a while before I heard his name,” he remembers. “But then I started learning that so many of the songs I was hearing, from ‘Philadelphia Lawyer’ to ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ were his. So when Nora said she wanted to send me some lyrics, I already knew what a great writer he was. She sent me a few, then sent me some more, a few dozen in all.”
“When I read them, it seemed pretty easy to me to hear the music that would fit. Nora said, ‘you can change some things if you want to,’ and I said no. He’s a great writer, and I do not want to change anything in his songs. I would just like to put a melody to these words so that maybe folks will accept the songs, and that’s what we did."
Though it took the process years to come to fruition the result is an album that really transcends the concept of collaboration. For while Del McCoury is not quite of Guthrie's generation, these two American masters share an unsurpassed breadth of experience, outlook, shared interests and common backgrounds. So what you hear is the simple and easy unity of these two artists. As Nora Guthrie says, "It sounds as if these lyrics and melodies have been around together forever, or as Pete Seeger says, 'that's genius'."
No Depression summed it up best by saying “Even at first listen, ‘New York Trains’ is quite a revelation. It’s as though McCoury stumbled on his finest writing partner in the notebooks and antique paper-sheet lyric-sketches Nora gave him to explore. It becomes clear that, if there were ever two artists perfectly fit to make music together, they are Del McCoury and Woody Guthrie.”
The Del McCoury Band will be touring in support of this release in 2016. On designated “Del & Woody” shows the band performs this album in its entirety with companion videos to each song playing behind them. It really does bring Woody’s work to life after many years of these lyrics sitting on a shelf.