The sacred and the profane

Del McCoury reigns as bluegrass music’s soft-spoken country gentleman. Steve Earle is country-rock’s undisputed renegade hell-raiser. What, pray tell, are the two of them doing together — blending the often unkempt Earle’s hard-luck, raspy Texas twang with the silver-haired, immaculately dressed McCoury’s perfect-pitch high tenor — on The Mountain (E-Squared Records, 1999), Earle’s first full-length foray into straight-out bluegrass?

Hell, McCoury and his band (featuring sons Ronnie and Rob on mandolin and banjo, respectively; Mike Bub on upright bass; and Jason Carter on fiddle) even shed their usual suit-and-tie look to don black leather for the CD’s promotional photos.

But to hear McCoury and Earle tell it, the two aren’t all that different from one another — at least, where music is concerned.

“It’s pretty obvious, if you’ve listened to my past records, that I’ve always been influenced by bluegrass,” Earle noted in a recent telephone interview from his Nashville office. “S••t, the way I play guitar is almost totally based around a G-run [an instrumental break in the key of G that’s unique to bluegrass], and always has been. People might miss that, because we play so f••king loud.

“Bluegrass was the original alternative country, anyway,” adds Earle, referring to the genre he’s most often identified with. “And [the Nashville music establishment] has generally treated bluegrass players like s••t .”

McCoury explained his appreciation of Earle — in the gentle, polite manner of a small-town minister — during an interview last month, after his Bluegrass First Class performance in Asheville: “Well, you know, Steve’s a great songwriter. Any music, it starts with the song. … You can’t play bluegrass without a good song. You can’t play country or rock or whatever without a good song. And Steve knows how to write good songs.

But the four-plus-decades bluegrass veteran can’t help adding, with a soft chuckle, “We probably are opposites in a lot of ways, though.”

And then some.

The Texas-bred Earle first picked up a guitar at age 11 and started doing drugs at age 13 — a marriage of activities that lasted until Earle ended up in jail in 1994 on heroin- and crack-cocaine-related charges (a sobering experience, relates). At age 17, Earle met the late, brilliant, troubled, dark-country idol, Townes Van Zandt. Van Zandt took the young musician under his wing and helped nurture Earle’s signature hard-edged style. By age 19, Earle had married the first of five wives and moved to Nashville to play bass with another Texas outlaw — the legendary Guy Clark.

Not surprisingly, the slick, prepackaged Nashville establishment and the unruly maverick didn’t often see eye-to-eye. “It took a long time to come to an agreement where [I] could even make a record down here,” says Earle, remembering of the years he spent gigging in dive bars and coffee houses. “I mean, I was 31 when [my first album], Guitar Town (MCA, 1986), came out, and I got here when I was 19.” The release went to number one on the country charts, Nashville power brokers be damned.

Still, Earle remained a Nashville outsider, mostly by choice. In the process, though, he became an icon to far more music lovers than he alienated with the series of hard-edged, rock-infused releases that followed — until his unceremonious slide into raw, deep drug addiction, resulting in his record label dropping him. (“It was taking too much energy to find the drugs I needed every day,” he remembers. “I didn’t even own a guitar for four years.”)

But it was Copperhead Road (MCA, 1988) — an edgy, political, hard-driving masterpiece laden with Springsteen-esque lyrics about hard times and common people — that became Earle’s signature work. “Issues and music have always gone hand in hand for me, from the time I started out. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been as popular as I could have been, in certain circles,” says Earle, a former Vietnam War protester whose vehement anti-death-penalty song “Billy Austin” (from The Hard Way (MCA, 1990)) further alienated Earle from the country-music mainstream.

His 1998, release, El Corazon — filled with richly visual story-tunes told through the eyes of jilted lovers, drifters, juvenile delinquents and sundry American misfits — moved Earle into heady new territory. Recorded on the E-Squared label that he formed in 1995, not long after his release from jail, the CD’s songs, says Earle, were the first music he ever recorded “totally clean. Even though I made all those other records while I was using, and they were good records — I’ve never done a record I’m ashamed of and I feel really fortunate to be able to say that. But I write more now, and I write better. There’s a better sense of clarity.” (As further evidence of his newfound writing prowess, a book featuring nine of Earle’s short stories, written on a recent trip to Ireland, will be published this summer.) El Corazon has been widely praised by critics as Earle’s best work to date (it garnered a Grammy nomination as 1998’s Best Contemporary Folk Album, though that categorization probably has Earle scratching his head). And the Del McCoury Band surfaces on El Corazon on the Earle-penned bluegrass tune, “I Still Carry You Around.” The musical chemistry is instantly palpable as the tune dips and soars, blending Earle’s hoarse drawl with McCoury’s lilting tenor.

McCoury — who says he “just hit it off” with Earle immediately upon meeting him, in Nashville in 1991 — was never tempted to play anything but bluegrass. Guided toward music by his mother, a church organist, McCoury was playing banjo in bluegrass bands by his early teens and eventually did stints with the Blue Ridge Ramblers and the Virginia Playboys, throughout the late ’50s and early ’60s.

“I don’t even know what it was that got me hooked [on bluegrass] when I was 11 years old and first heard it,” he notes with a kind of wonder. “Of course, there wasn’t anything really big like rock ‘n’ roll then. If I’d come along a little later, I might have paid attention to … Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis. Who knows? But as it was, I heard Earl Scruggs and, man, I’m still not well. I just couldn’t get over it.”

McCoury met Bill Monroe at a Baltimore club in the early ’60s, and Monroe soon invited him to join his legendary Bluegrass Boys — a move that irrevocably changed the young bluegrass phenomenon’s life. Monroe soon switched McCoury from banjo to rhythm guitar and gave him lead-vocal duties, to boot. But McCoury quit the Bluegrass Boys after one short year, however: Newly married, he took a job in a sawmill, played music on weekends, and concentrated on raising a family. But as that family grew, McCoury began to miss playing music full time. Luckily, the elder of McCoury’s two young sons — Ronnie and Rob — took to music early and before long the Del McCoury Band was born (Ronnie made his debut in 1981 at age 14; seven years later, Rob joined the band; both McCoury sons, by the way, have recorded and otherwise worked with Earle in the past).

The rest is still-evolving bluegrass history: McCoury is the reigning International Bluegrass Music Awards (IBMA) Entertainer of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year — honors he has held for four years running. Ronnie McCoury has won IBMA’s Mandolin Player of the Year honors for the past six consecutive years. Collectively, the band has garnered 22 IBMA top honors.

What places the Del McCoury Band head-and-shoulders above their peers is a magical combination of almost-frightening technical prowess and raw passion, not to mention the tighter-than-tight vocal harmonies that can turn even a simple gospel tune like “Get Down on Your Knees and Pray” (from The Family (Ceili Music, 1998)) into a ferocious work of art — in much the same way that Earle can turn a simple folk tune into a gut-wrenching anthem.

The songs on The Mountain range from the spooky murder ballad “Carrie Brown,” to the raucous “Connemara Breakdown,” to the high-velocity, folk-tinged “Leroy’s Dustbowl Blues,” to the heart-wrenching “I’m Still in Love With You,” a duet featuring Earle and Iris DeMent. The elegiac “Pilgrim” — Earle’s tribute to the late, great bass player Roy Huskey Jr. — boasts a bevy of renowned guest artists, including Jerry Douglas on dobro; Sam Bush on mandolin; and Emmylou Harris, Tim O’Brien, Gillian Welch and Peter Rowan on vocals. Earle calls the disc’s understated title track “the best song I’ve ever written.”

That said, the often confident-to-a-fault Earle admits that he still has a lot to learn about bluegrass — a genre that’s widely held, particularly by those who play it, as the most difficult music of all to play.

“I’m sort of riding in the rocking chair [with the McCoury] band because, a lot of the time, I’m just drifting behind Del,” notes Earle. “And I’m really just learning to play rhythm guitar in a bluegrass band. I don’t do it real well, but I do better than I did when I first started.”

How would that bluegrass purist to match all purists — Bill Monroe — have felt about having a guy who names his favorite record as the Rolling Stone’s Exile on Main Street record a bluegrass release with the high, lonesome likes of the traditional McCoury?

Earle probably said it best, in a prepared statement in which he called The Mountain “my interpretation, to the best of my ability and with all of my heart (as well as the assistance of the best bluegrass band working today), of the music that Bill Monroe invented. … Some of it I think he would have approved of … and some of it probably has him turning over in his grave.”

“[Monroe] was very strict about the music,” Earle emphasizes. “I don’t totally agree with that. … Bluegrass can get very sterile and very boring real quick, if the players are too technical. But there’s a great Bill Monroe story about him at some bluegrass festival somewhere, watching some young mandolin player play, and he went whole-hog and was playing at breakneck speed, and Bill turned around to someone and said, ‘What would make a man play bluegrass music so fast?'”

McCoury, however, claims that Monroe was not quite as narrow-minded about the genre as legend holds. “When I worked with him, I found him actually more open-minded than you would think,” remembers McCoury. “He just liked a good song, like any artist would. Back in the ’50s, he covered a lot of country artists. And I’m sure he got things from those country artists without realizing it. … Those influences were in disguise, really.”

But when it comes to Earle’s influence on McCoury’s own work, the bluegrass master clearly feels that no disguise is necessary. “When we started to do this [project], I knew some of the bluegrass purists wouldn’t agree with it,” McCoury concedes. “But it’s good for the music, I think. He’s bringing the songs he wrote from The Mountain into the bluegrass arena … and they’re great songs. Nobody could argue with that.”

As for Earle, he’s off to his next project. “It’s a rock record,” he says simply.

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