Del McCoury is 69 years old, but he’s still learning from his elders. Bluegrass pioneer Mac Wiseman introduced him to “Breadline Blues 1932,” a musical plea to vote for change. Bernard “Slim” Smith’s original recording is the first song on a new multi-artist compilation album, Moneyland — although the project officially kicks off with a famous fireside chat from Franklin D. Roosevelt.
McCoury adds his own new recordings (like John Herald’s title song and the Beatles’ “When I’m 64″) to a stack of country songs about the challenges faced by the common man in the midst of a struggling economy. Moneyland also features tracks by Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Hornsby, Chris Knight, Patty Loveless, Marty Stuart and Dan Tyminski. The Del McCoury Band even recorded a new version of “Breadline Blues” with guest vocals from Tim O’Brien, Gillian Welch and Wiseman.
Taking a break from recording his next project — a 50-song collection reflecting his 50 years in the music business — McCoury chatted about greed, hometown blues and what it takes for a new band to get started in tough times.
CMT: I like this line from “Moneyland”: “It’s a money disease/It’s a thing called greed/And it feeds on those who need the money most/In Moneyland.” What’s your interpretation of that?
McCoury: It’s like the greedy oil barons. They were probably making a lot of money back in the ’60s, off of us. But they got greedy, and they’ll still be greedy. The more they make, the more they want. That’s kind of the definition of greed, and it feeds on those who need the money most. The poor people, you know. The poor people who really can’t afford to drive their vehicle to work. It’s a shame. … Because the fuel costs are so high, then the hauling [expenses] for food is crazy. My wife said, “You haven’t been to the store lately, have you?” And I said “No.” She said, “There’s some things that doubled [in price] in the store.” That’s amazing, and that’s just because of transportation.
How does the theme of this record tie into your home turf of York County, Pa.?
I grew up on a farm. My dad was too old for the service, so he worked in the defense plant during the war, and before that, he had been a farmer. When the war was over, he told my mother, “We better buy a farm and settle down because you can buy one pretty cheap.” In fact, he bought 100 acres, or 98 acres or something like that, for $1,750 on a sheriff’s sale — a farm! But he said, “We need to buy a farm because we might starve to death after this war’s over if we don’t have a place to have a cow, some chickens and a hog and grow a little bit to eat.” And it worked out. After the war was over, it was a prosperous time, really. He started buying dairy cattle and made a dairy out of this barn, and he started shipping milk and really prospered.
I lived in York County. Out there in the country, that’s where we lived, but York was like the county seat. York County borders Baltimore County in Maryland. Anyway, that little city of York was a big industrial little town. You could get a job there. Anybody could get a job in York. … They had Caterpillar there. They still have Harley-Davidson there, but it’s about to fold, I think. They had an Allis-Chalmers plant there for tractors, and the place where they make York air conditioners was there. Some of those places are still there, I’m sure, but then some are not. It’s just not that easy to get a job in that town anymore, and the farmers, it’s really putting a pinch on them. I have a lot of compassion for farmers. I knew a lot of them back then. They have it pretty rough.
If somebody hears this album and thinks “something has got to change,” how can people be a part of the solution?
You know, I wondered myself. … As far as fixing something like the economy, I have no idea. But we thought at least with song, we can call attention to folks that could change things, maybe. I don’t think it’s gone that far to where it can’t change. All I know to do these days is sing — go out and do shows — and talk to people from the stage. But I never do get political with them. They can vote whatever way they want to, because we don’t know who can fix it. …
I still have a house up there in PA, and it needed a porch. The roof’s OK, but it needed a floor. It’s like a four-story, one of them old houses. So this guy came and he gave us an estimate. He’s in his mid-50s or something like that, and he says, “My sons do all the work. I don’t do any work.” My wife said, “Well, what do you do?” And he said, “I was an engineer, but my job went to China. So now, I’m working for my sons.” And it should be the other way around. So he was bidding a job for his sons, and then they come and do the job.
For younger bands trying to get their careers going now, with gas and food so expensive, is there any perspective you can offer to them?
That’s probably the roughest thing for them right now, the cost of transportation. But, you know, if they really have that drive. … I think I did. I didn’t realize it at the time. My wife would say, “Well, you can get a job doing this and doing that.” You know how wives are. And, “Look how much money you could make.” I said, “Well, yeah, but then I couldn’t take off and play music,” which she didn’t understand anyway. So if they have the drive to do it, they will. They will overcome all those hurdles, I’m sure.