Duke of Earle

Steve Earle makes a brilliant detour into bluegrass with The Mountain

Earle had finally found his place by making a record that didn't seek to appease any interest other than himself. Even now, the power of the album is undiminished simply because it's so genuinely alive and honest that it's transcendent--an album where The Beatles' "I'm Looking Through You" fits in perfectly with Townes Van Zandt's "Tecumseh Valley," and Earle's own roughhewn originals.

Earning critical praise and a major-label deal with Warner Bros., Earle proceeded to wow the critics with a pair of musically diverse albums, 1996's I Feel Alright and the following year's El Corazón. Creatively, Earle was born again, exploring themes of race on songs like "Tanneytown" and the death penalty on "Ellis Unit One" from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. He became an outspoken advocate and activist for a number of liberal political causes, and rubbed his personal and artistic independence in the face of a Nashville community that had abandoned him long ago.

Earle started his own label, E-Squared, and signed a number of alternative country acts like the V-Roys, Six String Drag, and Bap Kennedy. Producing a number of these projects with singer/guitarist Ray Kennedy, another Music Row renegade, Earle was planning a follow-up to El Corazon when he decided that he wanted to recapture the stripped-down atmosphere of Train A Comin'.

"I'd sort of decided that I wanted the next one to be an acoustic album," Earle says. "Around the same time, Roy Huskey died, which meant there couldn't be another Train Band record, and I couldn't just see plugging in another bass player into it."

While fate dealt that project a fatal blow with Huskey's death, Earle turned his sights toward the possibility of recording a bluegrass album. Bluegrass vet Del McCoury's involvement in the project was a natural since Earle had already recorded "I Still Carry You Around" with McCoury's band during the El Corazón sessions.

"Del had recorded one of my songs back in 1990," Earle says. "And during the time I was touring with the Train Band, we played a number of festivals with Del. I got to know him and Ronnie [McCoury's son and mandolin player]. We had recorded the one side for El Corazon. So it just sort of evolved, it was a pretty organic thing."

For Earle, the prospect of writing a bluegrass album and recording it with McCoury, a former member of Bill Monroe's famed Bluegrass Boys, held a special fascination.

"The kind of bluegrass I always tended to gravitate toward was the stuff that was the most song oriented," Earle says. "And Del's stuff has always been that way. It's never been about how fast you could play--it's always been about songs and singing."

The songcraft on The Mountain is nothing short of amazing. Along with a pair of instrumentals, the album features 12 other original compositions which cover the entire gamut of folk, bluegrass, and country themes. Earle stamps his personal style on numbers which include mining and labor anthems, murder ballads, war songs and gospel-tinged explorations. With the McCoury group's aching harmonies and tight musical backing, the album is a thrilling affirmation of the power and timelessness of the form.

The disc opener "Texas Eagle" is an autobiographical tale that pays tribute to the bygone era of the railroad. As McCoury and his ensemble charge behind him, Earle's gruff vocals lament the passing of an American institution that served as a source of musical inspiration for country artists from Jimmie Rodgers to Johnny Cash.

"Leroy's Dustbowl Blues" is Earle's take on Woody Guthrie's classic migrant warning, "Do Re Mi." Earle's character winds from "Broken Bow to Bakersfield" only to realize he's given up his home for a false paradise of palm trees and orange groves. Echoing Guthrie's decades-old refrain, Earle sings, "They say California is a paradise/Hollywood turns night time into day/But up along the San Joaquin those city lights/Might as well be a million miles away."

The heart of the album lies in the songs "Harlan Man" and "The Mountain." Conceived as a suite, the two songs capture the essence of Earle's best character narratives--each telling the story of an East Kentucky miner's existence--one from the perspective of the past and another from the present.

The Mountain succeeds on a number of levels, but above all it confirms that Earle is a writer at the peak of his creative powers. While Earle is too restless an artist to stick to one genre for any length of time, it seems likely that he'll continue to mine the rich milieu of mountain and bluegrass music. "I'm probably not completely over just going out and being really, really brutally loud from time to time--and I am writing another rock record," he says. "But this isn't my last bluegrass album, simply because this stuff is so much fun to play. On top of that I've learned a lot doing it. In the end I think I'm a better writer, a better singer and a better guitar player after making this record, and I think I'll be even better than that at the end of this tour."

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