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Published: 2006/07/20
by Randy Ray

Songs of The Promised Land with Del McCoury

Del McCoury may be the only human being on the planet to take the stage with both Bill Monroe and Phish. Needless to say that the clich“here’s a man that needs no introduction” stands firm here but we’ll sort out a paragraph for the legend, regardless. Currently, McCoury on guitar and vocals and his band which consists of his son Ronnie on mandolin, Rob on banjo, Jason Carter on fiddle, Alan Bartram on upright bass are touring the country in support of the band’s first gospel recording. The Promised Land manages to present songs of deep, penetrating faith as timeless healing classics without a hint of preachy self-righteousness. I, like many listeners, am very leery and weary of anyone trying to upgrade one’s spirituality but McCoury has a special knack of transcending creeds and belief systems while delivering songs that make one feel warm, confident and blissfully at peace with the Great Fates That Be.

McCoury’s storied career began with homegrown bluegrass and, as you will see in this lengthy conversation, his mark has been widespread but his roots remain trueit’s all about the song, buddy. caught up with McCoury at his Hendersonville, Tennessee home where the banter ranged from gospel music to old records to early rock n’ roll to Phish, SCI, Leftover Salmon, YMSB and ultimately, the sagely importance of a democratic relationship between artist and audience. McCoury is a very open and friendly Southern Gentleman who has somehow kept his faith, muse, sense of humor and great gift for childish wonder in a world riddled by jaded corruption.

PART I It’s funny how things work out

RR: Did The Promised Land have something to do with your mother?

DM: Yes. It’s a shame she and my father didn’t get to hear it. My father died in 1975. It is something that I always wanted to dothe time wasn’t right for some reason. About 25 years ago, I talked my producer into a gospel record. I was recording for Rounder Records, then. I got talked into doing one but I was kind of a secular record guy so for an independent label, I guess it’s a little hard for them to market a gospel record. I had him talked into it and my bass player quit. We had that record all ready to go. The guy was singing, playing bass, lead guitar and banjo and he quit so we had to do a regular record.

Those songs just got put back. I didn’t do any of them on the regular one. At that time, it kind of disgusted me because I wanted to get that out but that’s the way things happen. I felt that if I ever did get my own label, I would do a gospel record, for sure. So, that’s the way it went and The Promised Land is the third record on my label. My manager told meI kind of listen to him for business thingsthat this was a good time, right now, if you want to do that. The company we keep hadn’t been out long and we started working on this so it worked out great. (laughs)

RR: Did you try to figure out why you had to wait 25 years to get these songs out?

DM: He does have a plan, God does. I thought about that, a lota lot of things that have happened to me just in the last ten years, you know. I wonder why they happened but I think they’re just part of His plan. I really do.

RR: How did you determine which songs to record on The Promised Land?

DM: Well, you know(laughs) that’s another thing. I had not planned on doing that many (Albert) Brumley songs [half of the 14 tracks]; although, I’ve been singing his songs for years. I had other songs in minda few things that had been recorded before but not many. I had a lot of new songs from writers here in town and I was going to write some more with them for this record. Jackson Brumley is pretty close to my son, Ronnie [McCoury, mandolin player and co-producer in his father’s band]. He said, “We’ve found some songs that my dad had written and they’re pretty obscurenobody knows about them. I would like you to listen to them.” I was just getting ready to record this gospel record so it is a funny thing how things happen.

I listened to about thirty of them and those few, those seven, I really liked. I talked to Jackson and said, “I got to thinking. If we record these songs, how many other people have also recorded them?” (laughter) I don’t keep up with what other people record, you know. Jackson told me, “No, man. We found this stuff and they’re obscure things. It has not been recorded much, if any. Some of the songs have never been recorded.” We decided to use a lot of those songs and put some of the others aside because I really liked them. That was another thing. I thought, “That was probably part of God’s plan, right there, for me.”

RR: I’m glad you mentioned Brumley because I also wanted to talk about some songs that appear on the album that were not written by himfor example, “Jesus Carried Me A Cross.” I assume that has some personal meaning to you, as well, specifically, O watched my poor mother take her last breath, I saw the faith in her eyes, I felt at peace the moment she left, knowin’ she was on the other side.

DM: Right. It did and you know I didn’t have anything to do with writing it. I have a music room right here at the house so we do all of our pre-production and rehearse everything here. I think we rehearsed for about a week, every day. A friend of oursRonnie Bowmanis a songwriter here in town. He’s a great singer, that guy, you know. He was writing with his partners; one partner wrote a lot of George Strait hits. Oh, what’s his name?

RR: Dean Dillon? He works with Scotty Emerick, too, doesn’t he?

DM: Yeah, Dean Dillon. You’re right. Scotty Emerick, too. Anyway, they got to talking amongst themselves and they said that they’ve got to get a song on this record, The Promised Land. They just sat down in a few minutes and wrote this song. Ronnie was all excited and he came by here and said, “Have you got time to listen to this song?” I said, “Yes, I do.” So he sat down and sang it to me. And it’s really a great song. When I heard it, I thought about my mother a lot.

RR: How about “Don’t Put Off Until Tomorrow” by Pete Pyle?

DM: That is probably the only song that I know of that had been recorded before. And it was recorded in 1950 (roughly) by Bill Monroe. I worked for him in ’63 and I never remember hearing it on stage anywhere but he recorded it back then. It’s got a really pointed message, don’t it?

RR: Definitely. There is no middle ground in that song.

DM: That’s what I liked about it. (laughter)

RR: My first boss way back when told me to “always keep my time ahead of me” and that song really drives the point home! [Author’s Note: like most rock critics, I work with a patient editor who somehow tolerates the occasional and irresponsible time lapse due to the chaotic lifestyles we lead.]

DM: That’s trueit works in spiritual and worldly things. I think Pyle was working in Bill Monroe’s band when he wrote that.

RR: Let’s talk about a number you co-wrote with Jerry Salley, “Ain’t Nothin’ Going to Come Up Today (Me and the Good Lord Can’t Handle).”

DM: (laughs) Well, Jerry Salley lives here in Hendsonville. He’s a great songwriter and singer and he told me, “I want to get a song on this record, too, and I want you to help me write one.” I said, “Sure, I’d love to.” Did you ever notice on Roy Acuff’s dressing room door, it says Ain’t nothin’ going to come up today that me and the good Lord can’t handle’?” I said, “You knowI’ve been in that room dozens of times and I never even saw that.” He said, “It’s right on the dressing room door.” I said, “Oh.” (laughter) Roy had it put up there, you know, so that’s where that came from.

RR: Did you write the music with his input on lyrics or did you work together?

DM: Jerry had the melody and chorus for the song and we got together one evening after I had been rehearsing all day and he had been in the studio all day. It was like butting your head against a brick wall. We couldn’t get nothin’ done. I thought, “This is crazy. Why can’t our heads get together on this song?” And, you know, it’s the funniest thing. Jerry went home and the next day he wrote a verse. I thought, “Mannow, I’ve got to get to work.” I sat down andbecause I knew what he had in mindwrote a verse (snaps fingers) just like that. Our minds cleared up the next day. We worked on it together but our best work was when we weren’t together. (laughter) We worked on our verses separately and then, put it all together. For example, I called up Jerry at his band rehearsal and he was busy. I said, “Do you have just a minute for me to sing you a verse of this song?” He said, “Yeah.” So I sang it to him and he said, “Oh, Godthat goes right with it.” It’s funny how things work out.

RR: I love the harmony singing on “Five Flat Rocks”especially Rob’s baritone.

DM: There’s five voices on there. Billy and Marilyn Smith wrote that song along with Marcus Stadlerthey’re here in town. I don’t know how I got this CD; I played it and I said, “Man, that’s a great song.” We started working on it and when we started we were singing and trying to find a key. It just so happens that my two sons had guitars in their hands. One plays finger guitar styleRob on banjoand the other plays flat pick styleRonnie on mandolin. Alan [Bartram] had an upright bass and they started playing the thing and I said, “You know what? This is the way we’re going to record itthose two guitars and that bass.” It just seemed to lend itself to that, you know. We were going to do it as a quartet but we thought, “Why can’t we do it quintet?” Rob sang the baritone part, Jason Carter [also the band’s fiddle player] sang the bass part, I sang the lead, my son, Ronnie sang the tenor and Alan sang high baritone. Sometimes with five vocals, parts will clash. It seemed that this way, it didn’t for some reason. It’s a great thing for the stage, too, because it’s a great change from the average things that we do. We did it all in one take. The first time that we sang it in public was at Carnegie Hall. I said, “This is the best place I know to start singing it!” (laughter)

PART II I would put part of this verse in that verse and just kept on goin’

RR: How did get into working with Bill Monroe?

DM: I’m from Pennsylvania and I was working with Jack Cook in Baltimore. The county I lived inYorkborders Baltimore County, Maryland so I was real close to that city. There was a lot of bluegrass there in the 50s and early 60s. A lot of people migrated up there from the south and played music from the warthey had Martin Airplane Factory, Bethens Field, they had the big shipyard and all of that stuff. Anyway, Jack Cook was a lead singer and guitar player with Bill Monroe’s band. He came up to Baltimore and I got a job playing banjo with Jack. Bill Monroe came in one night and he wanted Jack to play one date at New York University. He didn’t have a guitar player and a lead singer and he didn’t have a banjo player so he took me with him to New York, too.

After that, Bill Monroe offered me a job and it’s funny in the windup when he did finally hire me, he hired me as his lead singer/guitar player; although, I was a banjo player. I really wasn’t that up on verses to his songs. I was usually singing on the choruses; I usually was singing on a part, somewhere, but I had to sing lead and do a lot of the lead vocals on solos and that was new to me.

RR: How did Monroe influence your style?

DM: I was probably similar. My style was a lot like his because I had listened to him for so longthat and Flat and Scruggs. I realizedprobably more after I had quit his bandthat he was one of the best tenor singers (laughs), probably the best. He invented the bluegrass style of singing. He sang to his lead singers because he was a tenor singer, which I didn’t realize at the time. He had so many different lead singers that his style changed a lot all through the yearsClyde Moody, Lester Flatt, Mack Wiseman, Jimmy Martin and right on up through the years. His music changed a little bit with every lead singer but it always had that drive and blues. That’s what I grew up on so it was really easy for me to sing with him as far aswhat would you saymusically. The wordsthe hardest thing for me to do was to learn all of these songs, to get right up on stage and sing all of these songs with him. ButI did it. I rewrote a few songs on stage. (laughter)

One timeit’s the funniest thingwe were doing the Grand Ole Opry and he said, “I want to sing “Wait A Little Longer Please, Jesus” on Saturday night on the Opry.” I knew he had recorded it so I went down and got a hold of the recordin those days, you could go to the library up in the National Life and Accident Insurance building in Nashville as they were the sponsor of WSIM. You could go and play records but you couldn’t take them out. I went up there, played the record, wrote the words all down, thought I knew it, got on the Opry and got excited. (laughter) You know you forget things. I would put part of this verse in that verse and just kept on goin’. He sang it on the record but I know what happened. He read it off a piece of paper and never really did learn the thing. He knew the chorus so he would sing the chorus with you. We sang it and I thought, “What’s he gonna say when we come off stage?” When we came off stage he said, “You know, I’ve never heard it sung that way before.” (laughter) People said that he was so hard to work for but I always enjoyed working with Bill Monroe.

RR: Why do you think musicians found him difficult?

DM: (laughs) It was a combination of things. He could say in just a few wordshe could make a person feel so small. (laughs) Or a look that he had. But, you knowfor me, I don’t know. He never told me, “Play like this” or “Sing like this.” He might have given me a few pointers but he never said anything bad about what I was doing. The most work he did was with fiddle players because they were so close to a voice and he wanted those fiddle players just to play what he was singing.

RR: Structure without any improvisation?

DM: That’s right, yeah. Of course, he knew that stuff. I really enjoyed working with him and I got along really well with him but, I think, I was a lot like him except for that stubborn streak. He’s got one, boy. He’s stubborn.

RR: Was that appearance with Bill Monroe your first gig at the Grand Ole Opry?

DM: Yes. As an audience member, we came to the Opry one time in the 50s. Boy, when you walked out on that stage, you’re just so nervous. That’s the part I remember about it, you know. (laughs) It had been a show that I had listened to since I was a kid. That place seemed so big.

RR: The common man’s real White House?

DM: (laughs) Yeah, that’s what it felt like. It really looked big to me. Before that, I had never really played any big places, anywayusually just some outdoor dates, some clubs and mainly small places in cities like Baltimore and Washington, D.C. That Grand Ole Opry seemed like a big place.

Part III Jerry Lee just had something, buddy

RR: How did your style evolve after leaving Bill Monroe’s band?

DM: You knowI guess, Randy, I never realized this when I started recording but later on you realize that you develop your style by the songs you choose to record. In the windup, it’s the songs that you really like to sing. That kind of sets your style. Until that point, the only songs that we ever did in the bands that I played in before I met Bill Monroe were Bill Monroe songs, Flatt and Scruggs songs, Hank Wiseman, Jimmy Martin that was the only ones that we had.

When I started my own recording career, I knew I had to have my own songs. Of course, the first record that I did, I only had one song that I had written on it. After that, I took songs that were eitherfor the most partnot sung that much, maybe in bluegrass or brand new songs. It was hard for me, at first, to write songs. And then, that’s what sets your style. Subconsciously, you did thatdevelop a style through the years. I never consciously wanted to say that: “I’m going to make this all different from what anybody else ever heard.” I just didn’t. Songs dictate that, I think. (laughs)

RR: Did that laissez-faire point of view also equate to your career philosophy?

DM: Yeah. I didn’t even know. The only thing I knew then was that I liked to play music better than anything in the world as far as a vocation or whatever you want to call it. I knew that that’s what I liked to do even though a lot of times it had to come second. I had a job later on but, still, music was in my mind all of the time. I wouldn’t go an hour without some kind of music in my head.

RR: Did you listen to the radio a lot or were you into making your own music?

DM: Both, I think. I know I’ve thrown a lot of good songs away through the years. I’d come up with a chorusthis thing would get in my head and I’d write it down. The way I amif I write a song, when it comes to me, a part of it, I have to finish the whole thing then or I just throw it away. I can’t come back to it tomorrow and finish it. That’s just the way I am. When I come back to it, it just don’t sound right no more. I guess that’s because of the mood I was in at the time. It was such a big job when I started one that I had to really hang in there and finish it within a few hours. A lot of times, I couldn’t. I’d come back the next day and look at the song and say, “I can’t write nothin’ for this song.”

RR: Did you need the song to be an accurate portrait of that moment in time?

DM: The song didn’t seem right, later. When I first started, I was all enthused and it had what I wanted. I guess I was in a different frame of mind when I came back to it and the song just didn’t suit me, at all. (laughs) Later on, I started writing with different people and it’s a lot easier.

RR: Was Bill Monroe your biggest influence?

DM: Probably Bill Monroe. It’s funny, my brother taught me how to play guitar but I remember singing foreverI mean from the time I was a little kid. My brother taught me how to play guitar when I was 9 and I heard Earl Scruggs when I was 11. That would have been 1950. When I heard Earl Scruggs, I thought, “Man, this is IT.” That three finger roll of the banjo really grabbed me; I learned to play that until I went with Bill. I stayed in bluegrass music but I was a lead player. Anyway, by the time I got into high school, I was deep into the banjo and everybody else around me was Elvis Presley-crazy. I thought, “This guy ain’t near as good as Earl Scruggs.” (laughter) It’s funny, isn’t it? That’s what struck me at a certain age. I think kids have to be a certain age before something hits them that they want to do.

RR: Speaking of Elvis and that Sun Records group, what did you think of Johnny Cash when he first hit the scene?

DM: You know, I can remember. I had a car when I first heard Johnny Cash. I remember what town I was in and I had my radio when he was singing, “Walk the Line.” I thought, “Boy, that guy’s different.” He wasn’t my style; it wasn’t something that I really liked. I knew it was good, you knowit was very raw like the early bluegrass; it was raw stuff. I think I may have liked it, though.

RR: What’s your take on electric bands who evolved from acoustic bluegrass?

DM: There’s one rock n roller that really struck me in that vainJerry Lee Lewis. He had something with that piano and he had the singing and he just had drive and a lot of those others just didn’t have it. Jerry Lee just had something, buddy. A lot of those early rock and roll guys learned from Bill Monroe because they were my age and a little older. I’m younger than Elvis Presley and Cash and Jerry Leejust by three and five years. They were hearing the same things I was. They started playing their electric instruments and adopted the style of Bill Monroethat real hard on-the-beat sound.

RR: Have you seen the last ten years or so as resurgence for bluegrass music?

DM: Yes, I really have. It’s hard for me to speak for other bands but with our band it’s been so rewarding. My manager told me that we’ve already turned down a half million dollars worth of work already this year, which was unheard of for me fifteen years ago.

I’m sure there have been a lot of things that have helpedthat movie O Brother Where Art Thou? had a lot to do with it. We didn’t do anything in the movie but we did the Down From the Mountain’ tour. I was on the tour with Steve Earle when the film went down. Alison Krauss’s manager called us to do it but we were touring with Stevethirty days here and thirty days in Europe. But when the Down From the Mountain’ tour went down, they wanted us to do it and we did the whole thing. I got to know T Bone Burnett on that tour. He said, “You know what? I want to do a rock n’ roll record on you guys.” He told somebody, “This is the best rock n’ roll band that I’ve ever heard.” (laughs) How he got rock n’ roll from what we did, I don’t know.

PART IV And, of course, the writer stumbles upon the Phish Connection

RR: Let’s talk about your collaborations with Phish. Did you enjoy that?

DM: I sure did. We knew Phish and they were playing this big place south of Nashville.

RR: Antioch, Tennessee. [AmSouth Ampitheatre, 6/22/00]

DM: That’s it! They invited us down there so me and my boys and the band went down. They wanted us to play on the stage with them. We had played with them at Oswego [7/18/99]. It just so happened that my son, Ronnie mentioned that Ricky Skaggs, who lived nearby, was home and they said, “Oh, manis he home? Is he around? Do you think he’d come down here and sing “Country Boy?” (laughter) Ron said, “Well, I’ll call him.” Ricky said, “Sure I’ll come down but, oh man, I don’t want to do “Country Boy”it’s got a lot of arrangements in it.” They couldn’t do it on stage. I helped Ricky sing “Uncle Pen” and a few others. We had our band, Ricky’s son and Sam Bush on fiddle.

Originally, we met at Oswego after they booked us. We went up there and I met Trey. I didn’t know what to think of these guys and then Trey asked, “Do you know “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome?” I said, “You mean the one that Bill Monroe wrote?” He said, “Yeah.” I thought, “That’s just as hardcore bluegrass music as you can get. I’m surprised this guy knows this.” He said, “Can we do a duet on that?” “Why, sure,” I said. That was a big surprise to me. Anyway, they had been playing a song I wrote, “Beauty of My Dreams” so they called my manager and asked if I’d like to come up to Oswego to play and that’s how I got to know them. They were great guys and then I found out what it wasthey had come to my shows in earlier years so they were fans before I knew them.

Those two Colorado bands String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon had members that would come to our shows when we played at the Telluride Festival. When they got their own thing, they kind of wanted us to come and do it with them so that’s how we got to play with a lot of the jambands. The same thing happened with the Yonder Mountain String Bandwe played with them in Oregon. They’ve got a big festival out there.

RR: How important is it for bluegrass music to continue to develop new material to maintain its fresh appeal without growing stagnant?

DM: You’re right. That’s very important. When we look back at look at the guys that made the blueprint like Lester Flatt and Bill Monroeas far as singers and songwriters go, those guys were great songwriters. For example, Monroe covered Jimmie Rogers stuff in his early career but later on he started writing great songs and so did Lester Flatt and they wrote them together. Later Jimmy Martin and Bill Monroe wrote great songs and those are the ones that are the standards, now. In the beginning, they set a standard of writing new material so we still have to do that. Like you said, keep it fresh. You can’t get in a rut by doing songs that all sound the same, you know? I always liked variety in a show and a record. I went to see a great bluegrass band one time. About halfway through the show, I thought, “What’s wrong with this show? These guys are great and they’re good singers.” I found out what they were doingthey were singing in the same key, the same tempo in every song that they did. This was long before I had my own band but it made me think that you need variety to keep it interesting. I don’t know what happened. It could have been that their vocal range could only handle that one key. (laughter) It is a challenge to hit high notes, low notes and everything in between. You have to do that to keep it interesting. You have to have new material all of the time. It all goes back to the songif it’s a good song, it fits about anywhere.

RR: How does it feel to still be turning on young people to your music?

DM: That’s a great feeling and it’s an honor, too(pauses) because fans and your audience make it possible and if it wasn’t for that, you might as well sit at home and play. We couldn’t do what we do without the fans and that’s why when I go to do a show, I never have a program. I never have nothin’ written down. The boys have no idea what we’re going to do when we get up there. I have no idea but the audience will dictate to us what to do because we just do requests after I get the band introduced. If it’s a 90-minute show, it’s easy. If it’s a 45-minute show, it’s hard because you don’t have time to do your requests like you want but that’s what we do. It keeps it interesting for everybody. I may forget words at a live show but there you go again, it’s a live show. (laughter)

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