This was bluegrass royalty. Plain and simple. In the paddock of Churchill Downs, The Travelin' McCourys and Dan Tyminski performed a splendid 90-minute set Friday at HullabaLOU filled with little fanfare but plenty of musical virtuosity.
The Travelin' McCourys account for The Del McCoury Band minus Del. There's Del's sons, mandolin player Ronnie and banjo player Rob, fiddler and Kentucky native Jason Carter, and bassist Alan Bartram. On Friday, they were joined by Union Station guitarist and 13-time Grammy winner Dan Tyminski on guitar. Not too bad of a pick up if you ask me.
Ronnie McCoury told the audience that the band flew in from Denver that morning, but there were no signs that they weren't ready to play, In fact, these five performers could probably play their respective instruments in their sleep. They play with an ease and grace that is not often shown on any stage, period.
There were plenty of highlights in their 20-plus song set. A Deeper Shade of Blue, the title track off a Del McCoury record, the instrumental The Squirrel Hunters, which featured a splendid solo by Tyminski, and Sunny Side of the Mountain all stood out. There was Ronnie's composition On The Lonesome Wind off their 1999 album The Family. It was hard not to be reminded how much he sounds like his father Del singing this one.
They did a foot stomping version of Ernest Tubbs' classic Blue Trail of Sorrow, and the Bartram-sung Gene Vincent tune Rocky Road Blues were both crowd pleasers. Not one to shy away from taking rock and popular songs and making them their own, they did a good version of Mark Knopfler's When It Comes to You.
The show ended with a trio of standout performances. Bill Monroe's Free Born Man was spirited, and it was followed by the fast and funny Waste of Good Corn Liquor. The show ended with a song that Tyminski cannot get away from playing. He probably is asked to sing it in Williamson County, Tennessee Targets even. But he and the band rolled through Man of Constant Sorrow without a hint of fatigue after a well played show in the blistering heat.
The crowd was small but very much into the show. They were appreciative and extremely enthusiastic. Many would yell "Yeah" when the first notes of a song were played. I am a bluegrass novice, and even the venerable old tunes aren't immediately recognizable to me. But one thing was obvious about the show; I was watching some of the most skilled musicians anywhere, regardless of musical style.
Indeed a guitarist like Eric Clapton makes playing look easy, but similarly, the McCourys and Tyminski play as effortlessly as anyone. They are instinctive players, knowing when to come in and out, when to step up the mic and solo. Ronnie McCoury's finger work on the banjo-driven Train 45 was beyond impressive, and the same could be said for each player on his respective instrument. In addition to the musicianship, the band seemed to have a really good time. They laughed with each other and with the crowd. As if their playing wasn't enough, they all proved to be excellent singers as well.
Behind their small stage in the paddock was a big screen TV that was broadcasting Dierks Bentley's set on the main HullabaLOU stage. It was a little ironic. The McCourys recently worked with Bentley on his new acoustic release Up On The Ridge. But they didn't need a huge stage or mega monitors.
Although they never played Tyminski's tune Wheels despite the repeated cries of a couple of fans, The Travelin' McCourys and Dan Tyminski put on quite an exhibition in musicianship that goes beyond genre and left the crowd more than satisfied. These musicians are simply the best at what they do.