The idea for the Grateful Ball originated out of the Colorado Bluegrass Balls. The Travelin’ McCourys would do a run a shows every year with special guests. Because of its success, the idea for the Grateful Ball would eventually come out of that. The Travelin’ McCourys (Ronnie McCoury-mandolin, Rob McCoury-banjo, Jason Carter-fiddle, Alan Bartram-upright bass & Cody Kilby-guitar) & the Jeff Austin Band(Jeff Austin-mandolin, Kyle Tuttle-banjo, Mike Robinson-guitar & Jean-Luc Davis-bass) came together in St. Louis in 2016 for the first ever Grateful Ball. Each band performed 1 full set of their music and then joined forces for a third set of Grateful Dead music. They dug deep into the catalog of the Grateful Dead as well as Old & In The Way, Jerry Garcia Band & the many songs they covered of other artists. It was so successful that they have regularly preformed the Grateful Ball throughout the country. They will be making a stop at Woodlands Tavern in Columbus, OH, which also marks the 10th anniversary for Woodlands (more about Woodlands below) as a music venue. I had a chance to talk to Ronnie McCoury from the Travelin’ McCourys via telephone & we chatted about the Grateful Ball & coming to Columbus on January 27, his stories of how he discovered the Grateful Dead, meeting Jerry Garcia & seeing the Dead play. Following this interview are a couple of quotes about Woodlands tavern.
Tom Wickstrom: I am chatting today with Ronnie McCoury, son of the great Del McCoury and mandolinist & vocalist for the Travelin’ McCourys. They will be coming to Woodlands Tavern in Columbus Oh on January 27 for the Grateful Ball with the Jeff Austin Band. First off, congratulations on your recent Grammy nomination.
Ronnie McCoury: Thank you. It came as a complete surprise to us.
TW: Will we have to wait another 8 years for the next record?
RM: I hope not although that could be our model for success (chuckling). We are hoping to get back in the studio soon though.
TW: How did you discover the Grateful Dead?
RM: A lot of people say they discovered bluegrass music through the Grateful Dead. I did the opposite. I discovered Old & In The Way through bluegrass music. I was 14 years old when I first played with my dad and through him me David Grisman. David Grisman had played with Jerry. I was about 18 or 19. I had been to a couple of Grateful Dead shows with my friends. The first time I saw them was in Philadelphia at JFK Stadium, which is gone now. It was the Grateful Dead & Bob Dylan. It was 2 nights & I was there with my buddy. We slept that night in the parking lot. Jerry played the steel guitar & a lot of people were in awe because they hadn’t seen him play it before. My mind, my ears & my eyes were wide open to it all. I wound up seeing them quite a bit & not long after that I played in Washington DC at The Mall. The Mall is the strip between the Capitol & the Washington Monument. They had a big 2 week long National Folk Festival. My dad was part of it & we played there for 2 weeks, like 3 or 4 times per week. While we were there, I met Tom Vennum, one of the guys who worked at the Smithsonian & helped run the festival. We were talking about the Grateful Dead & he said: “Oh, you like them?” I told him I’d seen them a couple of times. He said they were coming to DC & asked if I wanted to go. “Do you want to meet Jerry?” I said I’d love to. Tom had written a book on Haitian drumming. He would travel the world & tape native music. He taped & wrote a book on drummers in Haiti & Mickey Hart loved the book & got a hold of it. Then Tom & Mickey proceeded to write a book together. That was how he had an “In” with the Dead. He took me down there & I got to meet Garcia. He sat right on stage. Right before he played I got to meet him. I was probably 19. I brought about a dozen cassette tapes with me of bluegrass shows to give to him. I collected a lot of tapes of live shows, mostly bluegrass. I had read an article where Jerry talked about the first time he saw Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys. Jerry was a taper & he loved bluegrass. He said the first time he saw Bill Monroe live was in 1963 in Berkeley & my father was playing guitar & singing. I had read that somewhere, so that was one of the shows I brought with me on cassette. I just brought them as a gift. Jerry was very appreciative, very kind. That was the first time I got to meet him. That was also about the time that Jerry & David Grisman got back together & started making music together again. David & I were very close when I was that age, about 21. He gave me the mandolin that I play today. I’d call him on the phone & he’d say hang on a second & he’d put Garcia on the phone. I didn’t know what to say. He’d ask about my father. My father met him in 1972. Jerry, David & the Old & In The Way band were playing on the east coast Whippoorwill Lake in Virginia I think. David & my dad had known each other since 1963. A long time. He brought Garcia to meet my dad. It would be years before they’d see each other again. I had bought these banjos in the little town that i lived. First person I called after buying them was David. David is an instrument collector wheeler-dealer. He told me what I could get for themand suggested talking to Garcia, because he thought he’d be interested. Next thing you know I get a call from Jerry. I ended up taking the banjos down to the Capitol Center in Washington DC where they were playing. I took my father & my brother, sister & wife & got there early right after soundcheck. We had a wonderful conversation with them & my dad. That was in 1990 or 1991, so it had been almost 20 years since they had seen each other. Jerry had just the sweetest words for my dad. He told me how influential my father was to him when he saw him perform at a young age. And he bought my banjos (chuckle). I never saw Jerry again after that. We moved to Nashville in 1992. The Dead never came to Tennessee after that. I talked to him a couple times on the phone & told him I wish they’d come to Tennessee. Jerry said they had a few problems there.
TW: Do you remember the first Dead song you played?
RM: It was probably “Friend Of The Devil” because of the mandolin. I was in this band in this little town I grew up in just outside York PA. There was a band there that covered the Grateful Dead called “Once Fish”. They would ask me to come play and I ended up playing with them about a half dozen times. They did all the Dead’s songs. I was a bluegrass guy so I didn’t know those songs very well. I learned a lot with those guys. The chords and the structure. Then I played with other guys that did all the bluegrass songs & the Old & In The Way stuff. They could do it all & throw in some Dead songs too. Then I really didn’t play much of that stuff until just the last so many years. I didn’t have many people to play it with. We concentrated on what we did best at the time which was the Del McCoury Band. When the opportunity came up for the Grateful Ball, I really wanted to do it. You get to know the song, learn the chords, try to sing them & I really love the songs. I read something about Robert Hunter. He’d never close the song out. He’d leave it positive or hanging. The last verse made really made you think on a lot of those songs. That intrigued me, so a lot of the songs that I have learned & sing are the ones that Garcia did. From what I understand, Hunter did the lyrics & Garcia did the melodies for a lot of those songs.
TW: Do you have a favorite song you like to sing? Play?
RM: I don’t really have a favorite. There’s too many of them. I am trying to learn some new ones right now? The Dead had such an extensive catalog. Not only songs they wrote, but ones written by other folks. Here’s an example. My father learned a song called “Dark Hollow”. He had heard it from a guy around Baltimore that sang & wrote the song. He said he never heard it anywhere else but in Baltimore. When Dad would play with Bill Monroe, since he was lead guitarist & harmony vocalist, he would get 1 song to sing lead vocals each night. My Dad sung “Dark Hollow” a lot & this was in 1963. Nobody really knew that song in bluegrass music. My father brought that song out of Baltimore. Not many people know that. My dad never really talks about it. He definitely brought life to that song. When Garcia saw those guys in 1963 with my dad singing that song, I can’t help but think that’s how it made it to the Grateful Dead & into their setlist.
TW: Your dad also did “Cold Rain & Snow”.
RM: That was another traditional song. No one knows exactly who did it. Ramsey is the last name of the man that many people credit for getting it out there but that song could have come from the British Isles. It’s an old one.
TW: In doing the Grateful Ball, are there any songs you’d like to do that have been more difficult to convert to your style of music?
RM: There’s probably a couple like that, especially on some of the songs where they relied heavily on the electric instruments & drums. Some of the songs definitely work more acoustic than others. I can’t think of one that we’ve really tried that we haven’t been successful with though. Jeff Austin brings his whole repertoire of Dead music also.
TW: Finally, Is there a story you can share of an experience of taking the Grateful Ball on tour?
RM: When we play with Jeff Austin, he’s kind of free-flowing. He’s good at directing when he sings his songs. Since there’s so many of us on stage, we don’t have a set order one person sings, we do a chorus and then this guy plays. Jeff will just say or look at someone & just start playing. That’s free. I like that. Not to be constrained at all. That’s a lot of fun with him & for all of us.
TW: It will be interesting to see how you all fit on stage together at Woodlands.
RM: From what I remember, it’s a small one. We always find a way to make it fit. We love playing in Ohio because the fans there have always been great to us.
TW: Thanks for chatting with me today about the Grateful Ball and also the stories about your experiences with Jerry Garcia & the Grateful Dead. I look forward to your show on January 27th at Woodlands tavern.
RM: Thank you. Happy Holidays.
TW: The same for you & your family as well.
Woodlands Tavern will be celebrating their 10th anniversary on the weekend when The Grateful Ball makes a stop there on January 27. Woodlands has been a key player in the exploding Columbus music scene. It caters to all kinds of music, but has been especially supportive to the bluegrass, americana, roots & jam music scenes. Here are a couple of quotes about Woodlands:
Paul Painter(Woodland’s original talent buyer): It is cool that the stars aligned in such a way to have the Travelin’ McCourys & Jeff Austin’s Grateful Ball fall on Woodlands 10th Anniversary. I always viewed music as being somewhat from the spiritual realm, something timeless & part of the beginnings of humanity. It brings us all together in some way that is beyond words. So many great artists have played Woodlands and there is a reason they come back. Having an owner (Jimmy Woodland) that is aware of the fact that investing big bucks into quality sound was a great investment. I have to mention Eric Jones as well, who is an extraordinary sound engineer with the unique capability to hear & isolate frequencies. Without Eric, I would have been at a great disadvantage because it is the quality of sound that keeps excellent musicians keep coming back. Without a sound engineer of Eric’s quality, we would have never had the success we had. Jimmy also allowed me as talent buyer autonomy & free reins & never had one criticism, so I felt a great responsibility in passing that role to Nic Kabealo when I retired & moved away from Ohio to Colorado. Nic has been doing an outstanding job & I feel a great satisfaction that he took over the role as talent buyer. Woodlands has been successful because of the team of individuals from the owner on down to the bartenders that have poured their hearts & souls into the establishment. I love Woodlands & the success that it has become & will continue to be. 10 years is a great milestone. Here’s to another 10!
Kyle Tuttle(banjo player for Jeff Austin Band): I’ve had several great times playing at Woodlands Tavern in the last few years. I think playing Dead Tunes with the Travelin’ McCourys there is going to top them all!
Here are some pictures I took of the Grateful Ball as well as the other performers on Day 3 of the Anastasia Music Festival in St. Augustine, FL in March 2017:
Here’s a video I took of them performing Scarlet/Fire from the same festival: