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Travelin’ McCourys bring world-class bluegrass to Petaluma

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PLANNING TO GO?

What: The Travelin’ McCourys with David Grisman

When: Fri., Nov. 30, at 8:30 p.m.

Where: Mystic Theatre, 21 N. Petaluma Blvd.

Admission: $38 (advance)/$43 (day of the show)

Tickets: Call (707) 775-6048 or visit MysticTheatre.com.

“The Travelin’ McCourys are traveling!” says bluegrass great Ronnie McCoury, with a laugh.

The acclaimed mandolin player, singer and bandleader is on his cell phone and riding on the Pennsylvania Turnpike bound for New York City, as the band works its way through the first winter snowstorm. The night before, a flat tire had forced the band to detour to a local airport so they could swap out their rental vehicle.

“Riding on those little donut tires in a heavy snow storm is not too cool,” the Pennsylvania native says of the incident. After getting a late morning start, he’s out of breath.

But McCoury, 51, is no stranger to the road.

He’s been touring behind his famous father since 1981. His own band, the Travelin’ McCourys, is now in its ninth year on the road. The band — brothers Ronnie (mandolin and vocals) and Rob McCoury (banjo), Alan Bartram (upright bass and vocals), Jason Carter (fiddle and vocals), and Cody Kilby (guitar) — was formed out of the Del McCoury Band, in which the McCoury brothers, Bartam, and Carter still play.

Earlier this year, the band released its eponymous debut album.

The McCoury family is one of the premiere dynasties in the bluegrass world.

Del, the 79-year-old family patriarch, was a member of the seminal bluegrass band Bill Monroe and Blue Grass Boys. Over the years, he’s picked up two Grammy Awards and 14 Grammy nominations. He’s also garnered numerous International Bluegrass Music Association awards, including nine as Entertainer of the Year. His band (the core of the Travelin’ McCourys) has earned two additional IBMA awards as Instrumental Group of the Year. It has a dozen albums to its credit, including 2016’s critically acclaimed “Del & Woody,” which found the McCourys recording previously unreleased songs by Woody Guthrie. In 1999, the band collaborated with Steve Earle on his Grammy-nominated bluegrass album “The Mountain,” which Ronnie co-produced.

Del has one of the most distinctive high and lonesome voices ever to fill a backwoods holler or a concert hall. He still tours.

“He stays busy,” McCoury says. “He’s a real workhorse.”

But the members of the Travelin’ McCourys are world-class musicians in their own right.

In 1995, Ronnie and Rob released an album on the Rounder label. Ronnie is an eight-time IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year winner. He took lessons from Bill Monroe. Rob was named the IBMA 2015 Banjo Player of the Year. And the band’s fiddler, Jason Carter, has earned 11 IBMA Awards of his own.

It was Del who encouraged his band to moonlight.

“We started as a result of my dad, really,” McCoury recalls. “He came to us one day and said, “Boys, if something happens to my voice, you’ll have to start cold. I don’t want that to happen. So, he sort of pushed us out of the nest.”

It took a while for the Travelin’ McCourys to establish their own identity.

“When we started this thing [as the Travelin’ McCourys], we knew we couldn’t just be a replica of my dad’s band. We started out as the Del-less McCoury Band and it took a while to figure out our own direction,” says McCoury, noting that he and Bartram co-wrote six originals for the band’s recent album. “About three years ago, we hired Cody, who plays lead guitar, but also can play just about anything with a string on it. When I first met him, he was a child prodigy on the banjo.

PLANNING TO GO?

What: The Travelin’ McCourys with David Grisman

When: Fri., Nov. 30, at 8:30 p.m.

Where: Mystic Theatre, 21 N. Petaluma Blvd.

Admission: $38 (advance)/$43 (day of the show)

Tickets: Call (707) 775-6048 or visit MysticTheatre.com.

“With him,” he adds, “we have a way to arrange our own songs.”

Meanwhile, both Del and the Travelin’ McCourys have formed a longtime working relationship with former Petaluma mando maestro David Grisman, who will join the band this week at the Mystic Theatre.

“He’s my hero,” McCoury says of Grisman, one of the originators of progressive bluegrass. “When I was a teenaged boy, I was learning bluegrass from my dad and the straight-ahead bluegrass of Bill Monroe, my absolute hero. Then, one day, we got a package in the mail from David. In it was a record he was reissuing at the time. It was called “Early Dawg.” It included tracks from a live show my dad had played in 1964. I was pretty deep into traditional music and Bill Monroe. But, on that record, I heard David playing a lot like Bill and that turned me on to his stuff.”

As Ronnie recalls, Grisman also sent everything else he’d recorded up to that time.

“Those included original songs,” says McCoury. “The way he was playing was just so unique. I was drawn to it and started listening to his music every day. I mean, I had grown up around bluegrass mandolin legends — Bill Monroe, Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, Frank Wakefield — and along comes the Dawg.”

At 18, Ronnie McCoury finally met Grisman and the two hit it off right away.

“He was great. He was so kind and giving,” McCoury recalls. “When I was 21, he gave me a mandolin — the same one I play today.”

In 1987, Del contributed to Grisman’s “Home Is Where the Heart Is,” and joined the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience.

“Basically it was my dad’s band with David,” McCoury says. “As the years went by, I visited him in California. We became good friends.”

In 1998, Ronnie approached Grisman about recording an album showcasing other influential bluegrass mandolinists.

“He called me back shortly after Christmas and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

The resulting album, “Mandolin Extravaganza,” earned a 2000 Grammy nomination. Playing in concert with Grisman is still a thrill, McCoury says.

“There’s so much that goes through your head when you’re onstage with somebody that you’ve listened to since you were trying to learn to play the instrument,” he says. “Fortunately, I have been able to share the stage with some of the greats, but David is the guy I learned the most from. He always took the time to show me things. He’s a great teacher, just a wonderful teacher. I can’t say enough about him. He’s my absolute hero. To share the stage with that guy is hard to describe.”

After 37 years of motels, snowstorms, flat tires and rental vans, McCoury says, playing in concert has never lost its appeal.

“Always the best part is being onstage. The hardest part is getting from Point A to Point B,” he says with a laugh. “But I’ve gotten to travel around the country and to be a part of my dad’s life in the second half of his career, and great things have happened. He’s a member of the Grand Ole Opry and he’s in the Bluegrass Hall of fame. To be with him through all that has been my life’s dream.

“And now,” he continues. “it’s the second part of my life and we have this band. I know that nothing comes easy, but we’re out here knocking around and we’re doing it.

“It’s only getting better for us.”