MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Today bluegrass legend Del McCoury is getting around to something he's always wanted to do: he's releasing the Promise Land. That's his band's first gospel album. McCoury has been performing for some 50 years. Producer Trey Kay met up with Del McCoury to find out why it took so long for him to record an album.

(Soundbite of song)

THE DEL MCCROURY BAND: (Singing) Some happy day with all the ranch (unintelligible) happy lane.

TREY KAY reporting:

For Del McCoury, singing gospel music is like coming home.

Mr. DEL MCCOURY (Musician): You know, probably the first band that I played in was in church. We were Missionary Baptists, and the Missionary Baptists could play instruments in church. My fist cousin played mandolin and I played banjo and my brother played guitar. And then Preacher (unintelligible), his name was, he sang bass. You know, and we had a quartet.

KAY: Back then, that quartet sang some songs that were written by the late Albert Brumley, a renowned songwriter who penned enduring classics like I'll Fly Away and Turn Your Radio On. McCoury always loved Brumley's songs. So when he was planning this gospel album, he felt like he was approached by an angel when Brumley's son Jackson visited.

Mr. MCCOURY: So he said, you know, I've got some things here that my dad wrote that we found, they didn't know he had. Man, they were great songs. I talked to him later and I said, look, you know I'd like to record these, but how many people have done these songs already? You know? And he said, nobody. He said, we - they're just, they're new to us even, you know?

THE DEL MCCOURY BAND: (Singing) Oh what glory, oh what a wonderful day. I'll join the song and the (unintelligible) while the ages roll away. When I get to heaven on that beautiful strand, I'll put on a crown and walk around all over God's promised land.

KAY: Half of the cuts on the Promised Land are some of these lost Brumley songs played by McCoury's fabulous band, featuring his sons Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo, as well as Jason Carter on fiddle and Alan Bartram on bass. The combo strikes a fine balance between their powerhouse musical ability and the heartfelt message in the material.

On one song, they lay down the bluegrassy banjo and mandolin, opting for a bluesier sound featuring a tight five-part vocal harmony.

(Soundbite of song)

THE DEL MCCOURY BAND: (Singing) Five flat rocks from a river bed. It only took one and the giant lay dead.

KAY: There are several ways to approach the making of a gospel album. One way would be to lay on the fire, brimstone, and damnation. Another would be to rely on the positive Christian message of salvation. For this album, Del and his son Rob McCoury say that they made a clear choice as to the kind of gospel they wanted to do.

Mr. MCCOURY: It's more uplifting than anything, you know?

Mr. ROB MCCOURY (Musician, The Del McCoury Band): Yeah, there's no sense scaring people with the record.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAY: The music on this album is far from scary. Their sound resonates all over the social spectrum, from suspendered to good old boys, to button down yuppies, to tie-dyed neo-hippy dead heads. I wondered if they ever worried about alienating some of their fans with the strong Christian message.

Mr. D. MCCOURY: No, you know, I never thought about if we do put out a gospel record that it would alienate some of our audience. You know? I just never even thought about that.

Mr. R. MCCOURY: Your suspender-wearing fans, they're going to love it, because gospel music's always been a big part of bluegrass music. And then you have, like, you dead heads out here, or your Del heads as we call them. They can make up their own mind, but I think they're going to like it.

(Soundbite of song)

THE DEL MCCOURY BAND: (Singing) In this world, I have nothing. Not a cent to my name. Not a thing to depend on, no fortune or fame. But if faith in my savior...

KAY: Del McCoury says that he wanted to make a gospel album for many years, and now that he has his own record label he can. However, his greatest regret in taking so long to make this album is that his mother passed away before she could hear it.

Mr. D. MCCOURY: I know her. You know, I knew how she thought, and I knew that my mother, you know, would like for me to do an album like that, even though she never said anything about it, you know, she never - but I just knew in my mind that she would've love to have heard that while she was still here. But she still, she's hearing it now when it's played. I know she is, you know?

(Soundbite of song)

THE DEL MCCOURY BAND: (Singing) I'm as poor as a beggar, but I'm rich as a king. I'm as poor as a beggar, but I'm rich as a king. I seek not treasures, because they don't mean a thing. From these rags to these riches I truly can sing. I'm as poor as a beggar, but I'm rich as a king.

BRAND: The album is called The Promised Land by the Del McCoury Band. Our reviewer Trey Kay is an independent producer living in New York. And you can hear more music from the new album at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of song)

THE DEL MCCOURY BAND: (Singing) Many times I'm discouraged, but I just don't know why. I got a deed to a mansion way up in the sky.

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