Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band,
The Mountain
(E-Squared, 1999)

Steve Earle states in the liner notes of his new album: "I wanted to write just one song that would be performed by at least one band at every bluegrass festival in the world long after I have followed Mr. Bill [Monroe] out of this world." While I don't think he's quite accomplished that goal yet, Earle has certainly done the spirit of Monroe's music justice on The Mountain.

Of course, he had a lot of help. The Mountain expands upon Earle's continuing relationship with the Del McCoury Band, who recorded Earle's "If You Need A Fool" in 1992 and were the backup band for the song "I Still Carry You Around" on his El Corazón album. The Del McCoury Band is one of the best groups in bluegrass today, and they give typically impeccable performances here, particularly Ronnie McCoury on mandolin and Mike Bub on bass. Guests such as Stuart Duncan and Jerry Douglas also contribute to the impressive musicianship on the album.

No one is ever going to accuse Steve Earle of having a classic bluegrass voice -- but what is that, anyhow? The shattering tenor of Bill Monroe or John Duffey? The smooth croon of Ronnie Bowman or Russell Moore? Earle sings with passion and conviction on The Mountain, and if the result never lets you forget that it's a Steve Earle album first and a bluegrass album second, well, that's not neccesarily a bad thing.

Nobody can deny that Earle is a superb songwriter, and here he's come up with several great ones. "Carrie Brown" is a classic tale of love gone wrong reminiscent of "Wild Bill Jones." There's a nod towards Woody Guthrie via Bob Dylan with the blistering "Leroy's Dustbowl Blues." Earle revisits the territory of "Ben McCulloch," from his 1995 comeback album Train A Coming, in "Dixieland," but with a twist: in "Ben McCulloch," Earle was a Confederate infantryman; this time, he assumes the persona of an Irish immigrant fighting for the Union. Earle is also capable of writing heartfelt love songs such as "I'm Still in Love with You," a beautiful duet with Iris Dement. The Mountain closes with "Pilgrim," a moving tribute to the late great stand-up bass player Roy Huskey Jr., to whom the album is dedicated. The chorus of the song features members of Roy's family as well as many of his musician friends.

As you might expect, not all of the material on The Mountain is traditional bluegrass. "Yours Forever Blue" recycles the melody of "You Know the Rest" from El Corazón, and Earle himself admits that "Harlan Man" is a rock song on bluegrass instruments. The origins of these songs, and the few non-bluegrass touches (tin whistle on "Dixieland," bouzouki on "Paddy on the Beat" and "Pilgrim"), don't detract at all from the straight bluegrass feel of The Mountain, though, and I believe Bill Monroe would have approved of much of the album. (I do wonder what he would have made of lines like "I'll be a coal minin' mother 'til the day I'm dead.")

My verdict: a good bluegrass album, a great Steve Earle album. Even if none of these songs earn Earle immortality by becoming bluegrass standards, I still expect to hear some of them being picked in the parking lots at festivals this summer, and I'm sure I'll be listening to The Mountain for many years to come.

[ by Chris Simmons ]

Buy The Mountain at CDNow.