Duke of Earle

Steve Earle makes a brilliant detour into bluegrass with The Mountain

The tour in question will see Earle and the Del McCoury Band perform across the U.S., Europe and Scandinavia though June. In addition to the live dates, Earle and company will be making a number of high-profile television appearances including a spot on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and a special hour-long broadcast of PBS' Sessions at West 54th.

Earlier this month the Del McCoury Band released The Family on Ricky Skaggs' new Celli Music imprint--a label whose stated focus is primarily on bringing bluegrass music back to the country mainstream. When asked if he thinks that the governing powers of country music would let that happen, Earle is less than optimistic. An outspoken critic of the schlock currently being manufactured in Nashville, Earle is weary of trying to guess what's on the minds of Music Row executives.

"I'll certainly do anything I can," he says. "But I don't know what they're doing on that other street. I don't try and keep up with them. I've discovered that we all get along a lot better if we don't see each other at all," says Earle with a laugh. "And really, I have no idea what anyone in this town is thinking when you get right down to it." It's relatively mild criticism from a man who once described reigning country queen Shania Twain as "Nashville's highest paid lap dancer."

Earle is less generous when he describes the recent end of his relationship with Warner Bros. "Originally I asked to be released and they said no," he says. "Then I was halfway through making this record, and I discovered they had picked up my option and so they technically owed me an advance for my next record. So I said 'Okay, here's your 450,000 bluegrass records and fuck you again.' And at that point they decided they'd let me go."

The experience of running his own indie label and trying to break new artists further cemented Earle's low opinion of the major-label mentality.

"You always hope they get it," he says. "If they do, then it can all work out great. But it's sort of like sign language or something--you can't make them get it. It can get to be a really frustrating thing.

"E-Squared will never be associated with a major label again. I may have to go with a major for my record--and that's a possibility. But it's really a matter of me staying solvent--I have to stay solvent for E-Squared to stay solvent."

Earle says that by the end of the summer he will have completed writing enough songs to begin work on a new "rock record." He is also finishing up his first writing effort outside of music--a collection of short stories that will be published by Houghton-Mifflin later this year.

"It's like nine stories that I've written over a period of about four-and-a-half years, 'cause that's how long I've been out of jail," Earle says with a laugh. Like his best songs Earle's fictional works are exercises in classic storytelling, falling somewhere between such literary influences as Mark Twain and Raymond Carver.

Another project that Earle is trying to get off the ground is a western-swing album with his production partner Ray Kennedy. "We were on this cruise that Delbert McClinton does every year, and Joe Ely was in a room on one side of me and Ray Benson [of Asleep at the Wheel) was in the other cabin--kind of like old-home week in the middle of the Caribbean. And one of the things I talked about with Benson and Buck White was putting together some sort of bad mother-fucker western-swing band around Ray Kennedy and making a record out of it."

Like Ernest Hemingway, Earle long considered himself a writer who had to be in the thick of things to effectively capture them in his work. And although his wildest days are certainly behind him, Earle's not the type of person to completely abandon his past.

"I still have a tendency to get in the middle of shit--I just don't get in the middle of the wrong shit anymore.

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