Travelin’ McCourys bring bluegrass to Columbia

The Columbia Theatre closed out its main stage season with The Travelin’ McCourys. The bluegrass band hailing from Nashville returned to the Columbia to play a set on Friday, May 3. They previously played the Columbia in 2003 as The Del McCoury Band. Brothers Ronnie and Rob McCoury are sons of bluegrass legend Del McCoury and both played in their father’s band for almost thirty years before forming The Travelin’ McCourys.
The band has four core members: Ronnie on mandolin, Rob on banjo, Jason Carter on fiddle and Alan Bartram on upright bass. They had an additional member, guitar flatpicker and producer Cody Kilby, with them at the Columbia.
The Travelin’ McCourys meld progressive and traditional bluegrass together. Ronnie, Carter and Bartram all sing in the band, separately and together. The whole ensemble is inspired by Del McCoury, and his music is in their music “an awful lot,” said Ronnie.
“With this band, it allows Alan to sing more and Jason to sing more,” Ronnie said. “It’s a way for us all to stretch out and showcase everybody.”
Bluegrass music is in the McCoury brothers’ blood. Ronnie started playing violin at age nine, and Rob always had a love for picking the banjo. When his father needed a mandolin player for his band, Ronnie was thrust into the spotlight only having played the mandolin for six months, but the transition was not difficult.
“The tuning and the fingering is the same as the violin, exactly,” Ronnie said. “You play with a pick. That’s the only difference, so it was easy for me to adapt.”
The audience enjoyed tunes by Hank Williams, John Hartford and John Anderson, and also songs off their new album “Pick” recorded in collaboration with Keller Williams.
“What a Waste of Corn Liquor” is a song “a little about love, a little about death and a whole lot about moonshine and whiskey. Perfect for a bluegrass song,” said fiddle player Carter.
Bartram played an original song written by himself and songwriter Jon Weisberger, titled “The Old Boy is Still in the Game.” It was intended as an answer to the questions many diehard bluegrass fans had when they saw the formation of The Travelin’ McCourys. People wanted to know if Del McCoury was retiring since the four members of his band were now on their own.
“[Jon] is really good at helping you organize your ideas,” said Bartram. “We sat down and thought about some of the iconic things about Del. Of course there’s his hair; his hair is always perfect. He hits all the high notes, and his guitar is really powerful, so we kind of keyed in on those points, and as much as you can in five verses, kind of went from point A to point B in his life.”
The band is not new to Southeast Louisiana; they have played at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival many times with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Bartram enjoyed Hammond, though he felt like he shortchanged himself “by not coming down and experiencing the local restaurants” near the Columbia. As soon as they arrived at their hotel, the band ate at Olive Garden near Hammond Square Mall.
Interim director of the Columbia, Roy Blackwood, enjoyed the show very much, and he started looking at new talent for the upcoming main stage season last September at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters convention in New York.
“The show was outstanding,” Blackwood said. “They do such a good job with making the audience feel right there with them on stage. Each of them is such a great musician in their own right. They really work wonderfully together on stage.”
The next performance to be held in the Columbia Theatre will be the “High Step Dance” ballet recital on Saturday, May 18 at 7 p.m. General admission will be $15. For more information on the upcoming theatre season, go to columbiatheatre.com.