Country music is a tradition and, like any cultural keystone, has its heretics and loyalists. There are those willing to push against boundaries and their counterparts who hold fast to that same architecture. Most musical outlaws don’t blow apart tradition so much as expand upon it. In this way, musicians carry on what is actually the most traditional aspect of music: an ever-expanding dialogue between generations. Even though it has codified itself into a recognizable sound within the country spectrum, bluegrass continues to expand and develop. Few bands better represent that evolution than the Travelin’ McCourys.
On Thursday and Friday, Dec. 15 and 16, the Nashville-based group will bring its Bluegrass Ball to the Isis Restaurant & Music Hall in Asheville. The show will feature Leftover Salmon banjoist Andy Thorn, double-bassist Travis Book of the Infamous Stringdusters and local guitarist Jon Stickley for two nights of standards and expansive jams.
The Travelin’ McCourys consist of brothers Ronnie and Rob McCoury (on mandolin and banjo, respectively), along with fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bertram. The McCoury siblings have spent more than 20 years on the touring circuit backing up their legendary father, Del McCoury — who fronts his eponymous band — and with their own project. When Del is leading, the crew sticks closely to the bluegrass tradition that he participated in as a member Bill Monroe’s genre-defining band, The Blue Grass Boys. But the McCoury patriarch didn’t discourage his sons from striking out own their own.
“What inspired us to perform without my dad was my dad,” says Ronnie. “He may be [a] leading proponent of traditional bluegrass, but he is the one who kind of wanted us to be able to stand on our feet and get out and be prepared for the future.”
For The Travelin’ McCourys, part of this future includes plugging in and turning up, like the rock ‘n’ rollers they revered as kids. “I grew up listening to The Allman Brothers at a young age and I’ve always loved their music,” says Ronnie, recalling The Travelin’ McCourys’ recent live collaboration with the Southern rock heroes at the Wanee Festival.
“[Rock musicians] are able to use their amplifiers and crank it up,” says Ronnie. “Now [that] we use pickups, we, too, can reach that volume.”
This spirit of reaching for the rafters and out across genres comes to a real fruition in the Bluegrass Ball. The Travelin’ McCourys’ touring festival allows them to collaborate with artists from scenes as disparate as jam, jazz, even the occasional DJ. “We’ve been putting on the Bluegrass Ball for about five years,” says Ronnie. “I’ve had picking parties for many years, and it was a way to take what we do at home out on the road a little bit.”
The Bluegrass Ball, he explains, gives the fans a unique experience that they know they will never see again, “and I think that makes it a little extra special.”
Parking-lot picking — the after-hours impromptu jams when the musicians can swap ideas and styles without the expectations of a formal onstage performance — have long been the unintended highlight of many a bluegrass festival. By inverting this idea and bringing improvisation to the spotlight, the Travelin’ McCourys underline the growing cross-pollination between the bluegrass and jam-band scenes. For both, festivals are a communal space where the music truly lives and grows.
“I believe bluegrass and jam band music have been [together for a while],” says Ronnie. “[Musicians such as] John Hartford and Sam Bush were doing this in the ’70s … stretching out and playing rock ‘n’ roll tunes. [These] two distinct musics … definitely have their moments of intersecting, but I don’t see the traditional sound ever dying.”
In that way, this lineage is renewed and carried forward. “It’s been happening for a while, combining different styles of music,” says Ronnie. “It’s an interesting time for this music.”
WHAT: The Bluegrass Ball featuring The Travelin’ McCourys, Andy Thorn, Travis Book and Jon Stickley
WHERE: Isis Restaurant & Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Thursday and Friday, Dec. 15 and 16, 9 p.m. $20 advance/$25 day of show