The Travelin’ McCourys and the Lee Boys
The Ark, October 18
The Travelin’ McCourys consist of two sons of the legendary bluegrass singer Del McCoury, along with several other veteran bluegrass musicians. The Lee Boys are one of the African American “sacred steel” bands from Florida that have achieved national fame over the last few years with a high-powered brand of gospel that has a pedal steel guitar at the center. A few months ago the Ark announced that these two groups would take the stage together. The pedal steel comes from country music, and the McCourys have brought songs by the likes of Robert Cray to bluegrass music. Still, you may have wondered how this would work — the two traditions are vastly separated, and not only by race. Bluegrass is an acoustic music, essentially quiet and contemplative even at its fastest, while the Lee Boys pursue an ecstatic end that, like many other forms of African-American music, involves breaking down the divide between performers and audience.
It worked very well indeed — the Ark crowd on October 18 was on its feet several times — and it’s worth considering, in view of the fact that nothing remotely like this has ever been tried, exactly how it was done. The Travelin’ McCourys played a set, and then the Lee Boys began another, playing several numbers. During the final vamp of the last one, the McCoury band reentered the stage and the collaboration began.
First of all, this collaboration was at bottom Lee Boys music. Their big drum sound and bass guitar were never silent, although they did settle back to s simple two-four beat on a couple of numbers. But the moves made in order to create room for the bluegrass musicians (who played their usual instruments, although Ron McCoury switched from an acoustic to an electric mandolin) were quite detailed. One key player on the bluegrass side was fiddler Jason Carter, whose long jazz-like solos were capable of cutting through the Lee Boys’ sound on their own. The other bluegrass instruments were paired in duets with Roosevelt Collier’s pedal steel. Finally, when the Lee Boys cut loose at full volume, they were matched by the McCoury musicians singing in harmony.
The full group did spiritual-type numbers that have been absorbed into bluegrass, like “Walkin’ in Jerusalem,” along with black gospel pieces built, Andrae Crouch-style, over multiple vamps and a repeated text like “Celebrate your life!” The harmony vocals stood up to the sweeping momentum of the gospel sounds as the Lee Boys urged Travelin’ McCourys on with shouts of “C’mon, bluegrass!” The musicians called the end result “sacredgrass.” Give them — and the Ark — credit for genuine experimentation.
— James M. Manheim<>