Singer hits a new peak with bluegrass collection
By Michael McCall
MARCH 1, 1999: Last year, Steve Earle approached the Del McCoury Band and asked the celebrated bluegrass outfit if they'd be interested in making a record with him. Once the group agreed, the singer-songwriter told them he'd begin writing songs for the project and let them know when he was ready. "I figured that maybe a year or two from now, we'd get started with it," mandolinist Ronnie McCoury says. "But, man, next thing you know, he's calling us and saying he has the songs written. It was unbelievable how fast he wrote 'em--and they're all good songs too."
Earle shrugs when he hears this praise. "I write all the time," he says, adding that he takes the same get-on-with-it approach to making records. "I don't understand the concept of someone taking four or five years to make a record. I want to make one so I can make another one. I lose perspective if it takes too long."
His work ethic is evident: The Mountain is Earle's fourth album since 1995, when he finished a prison sentence for drug possession. Sober since his release, he has directed his obsessive personality into what he does best--making records. Besides his own albums, he and business partner Ray Kennedy have produced several others, including recent efforts by the V-Roys, Cheri Knight, Jack Ingram, and Bap Kennedy, along with Lucinda Williams' Grammy-nominated Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Coproduced by Earle, Kennedy, and Ronnie McCoury, The Mountain was largely created live in the studio, making it the fastest album session of Earle's career. It was also the most challenging. "These songs were harder for me to perform than any song I've ever written," he says. "I'm just now getting good enough to barely think about making a bluegrass record. It's something I've always listened to--bluegrass has been a component of my music for as long as I've been making records. But doing a whole album this way was really pushing the outside of the envelope for me."
The challenges were manifold, he explains. "Bluegrass works best at the top of whatever your [vocal] range is, so I had to pitch the songs higher than I usually do." Beyond that, the only time Earle had used a banjo or fiddle in his music had been on "I Still Carry You Around," a song he recorded with the McCoury Band for his 1997 album, El Corazon.
But for all the challenges Earle faced in the making of his new record, the greatest is yet to come, since it remains to be seen how audiences will respond. The album will likely surprise both Earle's fans and the bluegrass faithful. After all, bluegrass is buttoned-down and formalistic, and Earle is about as unbuttoned and unrestrained as a musician could be. But the brash singer-songwriter has already excelled at a variety of musical styles, and his new album proves he can be as substantial at traditional mountain music as he is at redneck rock, modern country, or unfettered folk.
Even so, The Mountain is far from a straight-down-the-line bluegrass effort. Earle's distinct style comes through clearly, but he uses the acoustic instrumentation to conjure up the rawest, most elemental feelings inherent in the material, which ranges from murder ballads to acoustic blues to tender love songs. The singer grants that The Mountain won't likely be his best-selling album, but, he argues, the music will endure--just like the best bluegrass records. "All I have to do is keep it in print, and it will sell forever. It won't sell millions of records tomorrow, but it will always sell," he says, adding wryly, "and I'll always be able to pay alimony with it."
Though he plans to make a rock record next, Earle contends that The Mountain won't be his last bluegrass album--"unless I'm tarred and feathered at some bluegrass festival this year," he wisecracks.
Some members of the bluegrass audience may in fact be wary of Earle's entrance into the genre, especially given that he refuses to adhere to certain bluegrass dicta--particularly in terms of his image. "There are those who are protective of bluegrass as a family-style music," says Dan Hayes, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Association. "But bluegrass people are more open-minded than they're given credit for. In Steve's case, I know his love and respect for the music is genuine. Once the fans see that, he will be welcomed and embraced. If it was perceived that he was doing it for anything other than heartfelt reasons, he indeed might be tarred and feathered."
Regardless of how the core bluegrass audience responds to his own innovations, Earle recognizes that the music has a much further-reaching influence. Not only did it have a hand in the birth of rock 'n' roll, it still influences young listeners today. "All these kids in bands like Son Volt and Marah, they all listen to bluegrass a lot," he says. "They all know who Del McCoury is. And they all identify with it directly because they realize instinctively that bluegrass is the original alternative to commercial country music. It is the original alt-country music. From the get-go, it was about guys more devoted to their craft and to their music than to being famous or getting on the radio. And along the way they created an alternate world, an alternate lifestyle, an alternate reality to the commercial country mainstream."
For this summer, at least, Earle will join the alternative reality that is the bluegrass world. In fact, the scruffy singer--who once stopped cutting his hair because an MCA executive told him he needed to be better groomed to make it in country music--has trimmed his hair for his upcoming tour with the McCoury Band. Not only that, he'll even dress in a suit.
"I'm going to be having big fun," he says. "Besides, Del would look terrible in a black T-shirt."
The next generationWhen Steve Earle asked the Del McCoury Band to collaborate with him, he knew he was getting arguably the best bluegrass band working today. As this uniquely American music enjoys a creative and commercial resurgence, the McCourys are riding the top of the wave.
Talk about being connected: The band is in the midst of some major activity that should bring even more attention to bluegrass music. In addition to Earle's The Mountain, which came out this week, they've just released their own stellar collection, The Family. The album came out on Ceili Records, a label owned by Ricky Skaggs, who released his own bluegrass album, the outstanding Ancient Tones, last month.
To get a sense of how highly respected the McCoury Band is, just ask Earle and Skaggs. Each man offers the highest possible praise, comparing these five musicians to the most important band in the history of bluegrass: Bill Monroe's classic lineup featuring Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
For the band members, who own a stoic come-what-may attitude common among bluegrass players, the attention is exciting, but they're not quite sure what to make of it. "It does seem like there's more work for bluegrass bands right now, but it's hard to figure why that is," says Del McCoury, the 60-year-old patriarch of the band, which includes his sons Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo, along with well-regarded bassist Mike Bub and fiddler Jason Carter.
"I always liked this music, from the first time I heard it. To me it's the only kind of music there is. So I'm probably not a good judge of why it goes up and down." Ever since the first time he heard Scruggs decades ago, Del McCoury says, he has been hooked. Not even the advent of rock 'n' roll changed that. "With Elvis, I wasn't sure what all the girls were so fired up about," he remembers.
Ronnie chimes in, adding, "Dad's always said that Elvis was for the girls and Earl was for the boys." These days, the McCoury Band serve much the same role for young players of their own generation. They might play acoustic music, but they attack it with the fiery intensity of rock 'n' roll.
While traditional at heart, the Nashville-based quintet looks for good songs wherever they may find them. The new album, for instance, includes a cover of the Lovin' Spoonful's pop classic "Nashville Cats," which shows off their instrumental chops, and a cover of Bill Monroe's "Get Down on Your Knees and Pray," which shows off their great harmonies.
Live, they accentuate their connection to bluegrass tradition by performing in front of only one microphone, with band members stepping forward to perform solos or to harmonize. "We like it because that way the sound can be as natural as possible," Ronnie McCoury says.
The lack of amps also allows for traveling light. Even today, they still hit the road with only Jean McCoury--Del's wife and Ronnie and Rob's mother--joining them on the bus. Del does most of the driving, while the family matriarch handles concessions sales. "Mom likes the money-to-hand thing," Ronnie says with a laugh. "It really is a family operation."
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