It's taken Del McCoury 25 years to reach The Promised Land. That's the name of his new gospel album, and it's the culmination of a project he first planned to complete in the early 1980s.
"I was recording for Rounder Records [then]," he tells CMT.com. "My bass singer -- who also played great lead fingerstyle guitar -- quit. So we had to put [the album] off."
But after he started his own label and knew he had a band he could count on, McCoury figured it was time to try the gospel trail again. "The first time I ever sung in public was in church," he says, "We were Missionary Baptists. Me and my oldest brother and a cousin of mine and the preacher had a quartet. Of course, we were allowed to play instruments in our church. ... It's always been a part of me."
Instead of cutting the songs he had accumulated earlier for his original project, McCoury started out with fresh material. As far as he's been able to determine, only one of the 14 songs on The Promised Land has been recorded before -- and that's Pete Pyle's "Don't Put Off Until Tomorrow," which was cut by McCoury's one-time boss, Bill Monroe.
Seven of the songs are recently discovered treasures from the late Albert Brumley's seemingly inexhaustible catalog. Brumley was the lyrical fountain who gushed forth such memorables as "I'll Fly Away," "Jesus Hold My Hand," "Turn Your Radio On" and "Rank Stranger." Brumley's son, Jackson, heard about the impending album and pitched the songs to McCoury's son, mandolin player and co-producer, Ronnie.
The album also includes "Gold Under My Feet," a selection written by Billy Walker, the Grand Ole Opry star who died May 21 in an Alabama traffic accident. Walker pitched McCoury the tune this past winter at the Grand Ole Opry. "He got to hear it," says McCoury. "I sent him an advance copy. He was really tickled about it."
The Promised Land also spotlights songs written or co-written by Billy Smith, Shawn Camp and Ronnie Bowman. And there's one McCoury co-wrote with Jerry Salley that was inspired by the motto posted on Roy Acuff's dressing room door at the Opry: "There ain't nothin' going to come up today me and the good Lord can't handle."
McCoury says he's already incorporated about six of the songs into his regular show, among these "Five Flat Rocks," a David vs. Goliath tale that he and the band worked up at the last minute for their recent performance at Carnegie Hall.
The Promised Land is the third album McCoury has released on his own record label, McCoury Music. His second one, The Company We Keep, earned the band its first Grammy last year. It was for best bluegrass album.
The notion of establishing his own label, McCoury says, came from his manager, Stan Strickland. The band was recording for Ricky Skaggs' label, Skaggs Family Music, when it was asked to take part in the Down From the Mountain tour that had been sparked by the soundtrack album to the film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? The album's producer, T Bone Burnett, told McCoury he'd like to record the band and asked him to meet with his Nashville representative, John Grady, to discuss that possibility.
"Somehow," says McCoury, "word got out that we were hunting for a label." Ten different record companies -- all waving upfront money -- offered the band a deal, he continues. Strickland predicted, though, that if McCoury went with another label and released an album, he -- Strickland -- would end up marketing it since none of the contending labels knew enough about bluegrass music to market it on their own. This assessment convinced McCoury he should start his own company.
Although McCoury has been a prominent bluegrass presence since Monroe drafted him into his band in 1963, many younger fans first heard of the tall, high-pitched vocalist through his affiliation with country rocker Steve Earle. After a chance meeting at the Station Inn, Nashville's temple of bluegrass, Earle and the Del McCoury Band released in 1999 The Mountain, a collection of bluegrass songs Earle had written. Then they went on tour together to promote the album.
"I don't know whether the Lord was looking out for me or if He was against me," McCoury says with a rueful laugh. "We got on the first show, and Steve he was using all this foul language, and I thought, 'What am I getting myself into?' I always liked a clean show. But I was already into it, so I thought I'd just have to make the best of it. A lot of good things have come of it. My wife sells our product at the shows, and a lot of people come up and want to buy that record."
McCoury says he and Earle are still on speaking terms and have chatted at such common venues as MerleFest and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. "He's such a great writer," McCoury asserts. "I guess he's from another culture. It didn't work."
Maybe it has something to do with his sons Ronnie and Rob being in his band, but McCoury, now a dapper 67, has been successful both in assimilating the music of a younger generation and appealing to it at the same time. He and his music have been embraced by such jam bands as Phish, Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident, all of which he's worked with. And his was the first bluegrass band to play Tennessee's mammoth Bonnaroo music festival, where, he reports, the audience has sometimes shouted requests for songs he recorded 30 years ago.
As a measure of his acceptance into Nashville's larger music community, McCoury notes that, at their request, he's been cowriting with such top-tier country composers as Salley, Camp, Don Schlitz, Harley Allen and Bob DiPiero. Dierks Bentley, a longtime fan, recorded McCoury's "Good Man Like Me" on his latest album, with the McCoury band backing him. He also featured the band on his first album.
McCoury says he's somewhat surprised at the growing popularity of bluegrass music. He believes the two taproots of that growth were the launching of the first bluegrass festival in 1965 and the establishment of the International Bluegrass Music Association in 1985.
"That made a big difference," he observes. "You've got to be organized."
Certainly, the IBMA has been good to the Del McCoury Band. It has nine times won the organization's entertainer of the year award and twice the instrumental group of the year honors. In addition, McCoury was voted top male vocalist for four separate years.
Besides the three McCourys, the Del McCoury Band includes fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram.