The other night I caught the Travelin’ McCourys, a five-piece bluegrass ensemble fronted by Ronnie McCoury (son of bluegrass legend Del McCoury) of Nashville, Tennessee. Ronnie’s brother Rob was found stage right plucking the banjo.
The McCourys played two sets at the Bartlett in Spokane, Washington. The audience that night was different from the venue’s usual milieu, the too-cool hipster crowd that chugs Rainier while scrolling their phones. It was older folk mostly. Tamed and comfortable and sitting, minus the token long-haired old hippie—a staple of bluegrass concerts—who refused to sit down and refused to not dance. This man is a hero.
I will not pretend to be knowledgeable about bluegrass. My familiarity stems from attending Live Oak Music Festival for a few years with my uncle when I was in high school. It was there, in the dry summer mountains above Santa Barbara, where I discovered many obsessive and exclusive subcultures: bluegrass, reggae, zydeco, gospel blues, late-night drum circles, to name a few.
In short, what I came to learn is that bluegrass music is meant to be consumed live. You can listen to the recordings, sure, but just like reggae something is lost when you’re not on the floor, surrounded by like-minded people tapping their feet, shaking their hips and bobbing their heads. The undying spirit of bluegrass comes from the communion of its devout family.
This was evident with the Travelin’ McCourys. Once they hit the stage for their second set, little time was wasted as they launched into their brand of breakneck bluegrass—i.e., kickass bluegrass. There is some attitude with this group. It gives them a flare of punk rock, and that’s not just because their tempo gives Cannibal Corpse a run for their money. It’s in their confidence and the way they approach their craft as masters. It’s what truly sets the Travelin’ McCourys apart from other bluegrass groups I’ve seen—the pure level of talent. (According to Ronnie McCoury, many of his band members have taken home awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association.)
Dan Nailen of The Inlander, in his review of the same show, pointed out that bluegrass has many similarities to metal. I’d agree. And just like metal, or punk or reggae, one does not need to come to a bluegrass performance with erudite expertise or encyclopedic knowledge to enjoy.
All that’s needed is a little faith. The dancing is optional.
Catch the Travelin’ McCourys on tour now.
Photos by Erick Doxey.