Murali Coryell figured it was time to go for broke.
In a bid to reach for the Grammy Award for best contemporary blues album this year, the 40-year-old husband and father of two took out a second mortgage on his house to finance his sixth CD. He hired producer and songwriter Tom Hambridge, who has worked with Grammy-nominated blues-rocker Susan Tedeschi, and recorded in Nashville with a stellar cast that included keyboardist Reese Wynans and bluesman Joe Louis Walker, as well as his father, the pioneering jazz-rock guitarist Larry Coryell.
"You have to have a great product out . . . and if I want to win the Grammy, or be considered for it, I have to have something that's going to compete," Coryell says over the phone from his home near Woodstock in Upstate New York. "So I went out and hired a great, Grammy-nominated producer . . . and surrounded myself with people who have been there and done that. . . .
"I don't have a manager. I don't have a booking agent. It's not coming to me. I approached record companies. They all like me, they all think I'm really great, but none of them wanted to sign me. And in the end, it's for the best."
It certainly seems to be. Sugar Lips, released on the singer-guitarist's own Murali's Music Records, is an artistic triumph and is making noise on the Living Blues radio chart. Coryell, who never before worked with an outside producer or songwriting collaborators, makes the most of his new resources. It's an outstanding collection, from the horn-fueled roadhouse romp of "Blame It on Me" to the sweet soul-pop of "Closer to You Baby" and the loping, Jimmy Reedesque blues of "I Still Do." When he doesn't have a hand in the writing, he offers knockout interpretations, his voice a soulful rasp, as on the bittersweet "I Could Have Had You," by Hambridge, Gary Nicholson, and Colin Linden.
One of his own standout numbers is the acoustic-textured "Mother's Day," a touching tribute to his mother, Julie, who died earlier this year at 61. Her death, and the reaction to her son's performance of the song at her funeral, only reinforced his conviction to go for it with his career.
"It became the most important thing in my life," he says. "There was no question about going for broke. This is the time to do it."
Speaking three days after a showcase at New York's Bitter End, Coryell was still marveling at the reception he received from Judy Collins, one of the eminences of American folk music.
"She's e-mailed me four times," he says. "She says, 'I have plans for us.' She also said, 'I haven't seen energy like that since 30 years ago, when I saw Paul Butterfield play the same room.' I said, 'What?!"
For Coryell, Collins' reaction validates his effort. He got past "all the negativity of record companies and agents," and made an impression. "It touched her artistic soul."