Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

By Stephen Grimstead

APRIL 5, 1999: 

Steve Earle and The Del McCoury Band, The Mountain (E-Squared)

After a four-year, drug-induced musical hiatus and a brief stint behind bars as a result of a 1994 crack-possession conviction, Steve Earle has reemerged in recent years as the king of American roots music. Mixing Springsteenian arena-rockers, acoustic folk, and hardcore honky-tonk with (gasp!) “black” forms like gospel, blues, and classic soul, Earle’s 1996 career best, I Feel Alright, and the following year’s El Corazon laid out a personal vision of roots music that shames the majority of “alternative country” dreamers who arrived during his absence.

Earle’s latest, The Mountain, eschews the stylistic variety of the rest of his post-jail output. Recorded with the Del McCoury Band, who get and deserve equal billing, it’s a love letter to bluegrass. And with Earle’s core audience roughly 10 times the size of the Del McCoury Band’s (who are, themselves, stars on the bluegrass circuit) it’s a record designed to expose the music to a larger audience.

The man from Guitar Town may sound like a rock-and-roller, but he’s a folkie at heart – a guy who learned at the feet of Townes Van Zandt and who was introduced to Nashville by Guy Clark. The Mountain is a songwriting exercise for Earle, an attempt, he admits, to write songs that will become genre standards. You can feel him aiming for something as archetypal and eternal as, say, “The Long Black Veil.” And though he comes up short – there’s a fine line between archetypal and cliched, and he crosses it upon occasion – it’s a worthy effort. He covers the traditional music bases, too. The Mountain has trains (“Texas Eagle”), the Depression (“Leroy’s Dustbowl Blues”), a violent Appalachian tale (“Carrie Brown”), coalminers (“Harlan”), and the Civil War (“Dixieland”).

But Earle also breaks free from this almost academic array, his own ornery personality sneaking in when the music loosens up. There’s the conversational rush of “Texas Eagle,” where the narrator complains, “Nowadays they don’t make no trains/Just the piggyback freighters and them Amtrak things.” There’s a wonderful duet with the incomparable Iris Dement on “I’m Still in Love With You,” and the protagonist of “The Graveyard Shift” – which is more blues than bluegrass – isn’t the downtrodden laborer we expect, but a back-door man.

This isn’t an “official” Steve Earle album, just like Mutations wasn’t an official Beck album. It’s a side trip (he describes going through a year of “bluegrass boot-camp” in preparation for making the record), recorded for his own label while his “rock” records await the promotional power of a major. And it’s not what he does best: Forty-five minutes of bluegrass exposes Earle’s limited vocal range, especially when Del and Ronnie McCoury pitch in with harmony vocals. Earle’s a scrappy singer, but high and lonesome just isn’t in his repertoire. And his songwriting was generally stronger when grounded in the here and now. But, as side trips go, The Mountain is lovely country, and in the Del McCoury Band, Earle couldn’t have asked for better tour guides. – Chris Herrington

Leon Russell, Face In The Crowd (Sagestone Entertainment Co.)

Shaggy-dog legend Leon Russell has been an active participant in the making of some of the most distinctive pop and rock music for the past four decades. Performers ranging from Joe Cocker to the Carpenters have interpreted Russell’s unique songs, but none can evoke the “Leon Russell feeling” better than the man himself. His latest album, Face In The Crowd, features his trademark swamp-revival sound, with a strong emphasis on the blues.

Face In The Crowd appears to be a totally do-it-yourself project – there are no musical credits listed, but the production is by “Teddy Jack and Dad,” or more specifically, Leon Russell and his son. This collection of a dozen original songs focuses mainly on the permutations of love, with an emphasis on the losing end. Even when the lyrics aren’t particularly inspired, the playing is impeccable (particularly on guitar, where Russell cuts loose with his best Albert King homages).

The cover graphics lean heavily on an assortment of African masks with Russell, as the hoodoo voodoo daddy, looking like the healthy ghost of Dr. John and ZZ Top rolled into one. Russell’s vocals are a little strained and raspier in spots than previously heard, but still expressive as ever.

Future scheduled projects include a standards album, a Christmas album, and more patented Russell rock-and-roll. While not exactly “the J.D. Salinger of the music world” as his press release states, it’s great to see Russell back in action with no signs of slowing down. Face In The Crowd is definitely a step back in the right direction, and there’s certainly no worry that Russell will run out of musical variations anytime soon. – David D. Duncan

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