Del McCoury | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe was one of the first country musicians to appreciate Elvis, and no wonder: from the beginning, bluegrass's borrowing from blues and jazz marked it as modernist pop music, albeit with a carefully crafted veneer of rootsy authenticity. Contemporary revivalists, with their self-consciously down-home drawls and faux-primitive instrumentation, don't always get that, but Del McCoury is an exception. He grew up in southern Pennsylvania in the 40s and 50s amid a family of old-time musicians; he learned guitar from an older brother but was captivated in the early 50s by Earl Scruggs's radical three-fingered banjo style. He gigged regionally as a banjoist for several years, then in 1963, back on guitar, he joined Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. He's led his own band since 1967, and their latest, It's Just the Night (McCoury Music), is a characteristic fusion of foggy-mountain romanticism and pop sophistication. The meters are mostly straight-ahead 4/4, the vocal harmonies are virtuosic, and everything's acoustic with no drums. But fiddler Jason Carter's off-tempo punctuations and pungent double-stops bespeak the influence of jazzers like Jean-Luc Ponty (as well as such bluegrass progressivists as Vassar Clements), and McCoury's tenor vocals and his son Rob's single-string banjo interjections are tinged with bluesy slurs and elisions. The lyrics are also modern, or at least timeless: the title tune, which features the gospel quartet the Fairfield Four, is a noir-drenched alt-country vignette; "Mill Towns" laments the decline of a rural community by invoking a desolate landscape of "parking lots where the buildings used to be"; and the lonesome lover of "Asheville Turnaround" screams down the highway in a hypercharged chariot ("I've got a rebuilt carburetor / I've got brand-new spark plug wires") that sounds capable of shutting down anything ever raced in Asbury Park. The Wilders open. $25, $21 for seniors and kids; all ages. Friday, August 27, 7 and 10 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.

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