3:36 PM CDT, July 16, 2008
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Bluegrass singer Del McCoury has a funny new song called "40 Acres and a Fool" about a city slicker who hits it big in the stock market and moves to the country to become a rancher. Of course, the guy doesn't know a bull from a steer, and his money and arrogance only rankle the other farmers. The song wouldn't be such a hoot if it didn't have some truth to it, and that's why McCoury put it on "Moneyland," his multi-artist project calling attention to the hardships of working Americans. Along with crackly excerpts from Franklin D. Roosevelt's "fireside chats," the 14 songs — old and new — include Marty Stuart and Merle Haggard's duet "Farmer's Blues," Bruce Hornsby's reinterpretation of his pop hit "The Way It Is" and Bernard "Slim" Smith's Depression-era lament "Breadline Blues."
McCoury and his band contribute three tracks, including a remake of the Beatles' "When I'm 64," which in this context becomes more a cautionary tale about Social Security than a proclamation of enduring love. "I have a lot of compassion for working people who either punch a clock or work on a farm. I know it's tough on them right now with the way oil prices are," said the 68-year-old McCoury, who was raised on a farm in York County, Pa., and cut timber to support his family while he played bluegrass on the weekends. "There was a time when working people could find a job. A young guy could get a job and he was going to stay there until he retired, get the gold watch and all. Today, he don't know if he's going to retire once he gets in." Or whether he'll have a pension even if he does get to see that gold watch. McCoury said his wife, Jean, lost hers in a corporate scandal involving Tyco International. "It didn't affect us that much, but I couldn't imagine how many people it did affect, people who were depending on it." His label, McCoury Music, is offering the CD free to groups like Second Harvest Food Bank and encouraging them to give it away in exchange for donations. McCoury got the idea for "Moneyland" from the title track, a scathing indictment of greed by John Harrell. It begins, "Now it's a pity to see when the land of the free turns out to be nothin' but a free for all." "Basically we built the album around that song," he said. "It had been a loose idea. But when that song came together we said this is the one." The cover art is a play on Grant Wood's 1930 painting "American Gothic" with Uncle Sam fleecing the stoic farm couple of their hard-earned cash. Patty Loveless, who grew up in the Kentucky coal fields and lost her father to black lung disease, said McCoury's timing is right because rural Americans face tough times. "I can only hope that bringing light to these issues can help these folks at a time when they really need it," said Loveless, who contributes her harrowing version of Darrell Scott's modern coal mining classic "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive." In his 50th year in bluegrass, McCoury is no rebel rouser. A soft-spoken man with a gray pompadour, he says he's not out to sway political opinion. A father and grandfather, he's only out to call people's attention to the problems — people he says are smarter than he is. "I'm a singer and a musician and I like to entertain people. I never was really into pursing anything else but that. But we need to be thinking about the way things are today."