Bluegrass scions Rob and Ronnie McCoury discuss the time legendary dad Del met outlaw icon Steve Earle and set a precedent in modern country
Twenty years before Rob and Ronnie McCoury won a Grammy for The Travelin’ McCourys’ self-titled album, confused yet intrigued friends and fans around Nashville awaited an unlikely collaboration between renegade songwriter Steve Earle and the brothers’ famous dad, Del McCoury.
Earle’s venture into bluegrass, The Mountain, arrived on Feb. 23, 1999. It featured the Del McCoury Band, with Rob playing banjo and Ronnie doubling as mandolin player and co-producer with Earle.
While this team-up makes sense in our current Americana-friendly climate, bluegrass was farther removed back then from the mainstream. Long gone were the days of Flatt & Scruggs introducing Jed Clampett to television viewers, and Dierks Bentley had yet to claim Ricky Skaggs’ spot as Music Row’s resident bluegrass aficionado.
Once the novelty wore off, Earle’s nuanced lyrics and his backing band’s talents stood tall. Years later, the album still resonates with fans through tracks like “Pilgrim”—a tribute to the late bassist Roy Huskey Jr. with a chorus featuring such legends as “Gentle on My Mind” writer John Hartford and country music’s most avid historian, Marty Stuart.
To glean a little insight into the album’s creation from two second-generation pickers, Rock and Roll Globe met with Rob and Ronnie at the Grand Theatre in Cartersville, Georgia for a brief backstage chat about a tradition-honoring set of songs that was way before its time.
RNRG: For starters, how’d The Mountain come about?
Rob: There’s a place in Nashville called the Station Inn. They used to do what they called No Depression Nights. Steve was there one night, and we were there together. Best I remember, after both of us played, Steve came up to Dad and us and said, “Man, I’d like to do a record with you guys and write all the songs for it.”
Dad said sure, figuring it’d be on down the road, but he got on it and wrote a bunch of songs. It wasn’t long until we were in the studio.
Had you known Steve Earle for a long time through your dad?
Rob: I don’t think I’d met him before then.
Ronnie: No, we hadn’t met him.
Had you done anything like that before, where someone else brought in the songs and did a bulk of the singing?
Rob: Not to that degree, for sure.
Ronnie: Not with the Del McCoury Band.(Earle) was really into it. When we recorded it, we did it in a room like this. He sat over there facing us, with the band over here (on the opposite side of the room).
Rob: We cut it live.
Ronnie: You don’t do that in Nashville much.
Rob: It’s the old style of recording. It’s how they used to do it. Stand around a couple of mics and record it.
Did that setup allow you guys to improvise?
Ronnie: We didn’t rehearse these songs much, at all. Not really. We learned them there.
Rob: It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years. I know that much.
We played a lot of shows with it. We toured all over the states, and we went to the UK and did a bunch of stuff over there and Germany, Norway and Sweden. We went all over the place.
Ronnie: He seemed to have a bigger draw over there at that time. But he worked it. He went over there every year for years. Still does.
Even back then, people could discover Steve Earle just from listening to classic rock radio. You didn’t have to follow country or Americana to become curious about his music. Were you seeing a lot of new faces in the crowd because of his far-reaching appeal?
Rob: We had a broad range of ticket buyers. There were people coming to see him, people coming to see us and people coming to see what it was all about. It was unusual for him, I’m sure. It was definitely unusual for us.
Ronnie: The first thing we did was five nights at the Station Inn in Nashville. That’s where it started. He wanted to go back and give back because every night sold out. There were a lot of people in Nashville just wanting to see what this was going to be.
Were the songs well-received once the novelty wore off?
Rob: He’s a great writer. It’s a strong album material-wise, for sure. He’s not a co-writer either. He writes all of his stuff. Or at least most of it. He’s probably co-written some. For that album, I think he wrote all those songs himself.
Ronnie: He wrote them all, and he asked us about topics in bluegrass, too. I was playing at Station Inn every week back then, and I remember telling him that there’s everything in bluegrass. There’s real-life story-songs. I was kind of just joking around and said there’s ghost stories. He came the next week, and in the back of the Station Inn he sung me “The Mountain.” He said, “There’s your ghost song.”
Rob: He’s one of those people who just needs a topic to get his mind working, and he’ll write a song about it. The great song “Texas Eagle” is one of my favorites on there, and it’s a train song. There’s a lot of train songs in bluegrass and country.
With Jerry Douglas and some of the others to appear on the album, did you guys suggest them to Steve or did he pick out the supporting cast?
Ronnie: There’s a guy named Gene Wooten who’s a dobro player on most of that. He was playing with us down there on Tuesdays, and (Earle) saw him play. He was a great dobro player. He’s since passed. He was well-liked by all dobro players, including Jerry. He set up Jerry Douglas’ dobro. Then other people, like Jerry, we called in.
(Earle) had “The Pilgrim,” which is about Roy Huskey Jr., basically, so he got people who’d played with Roy. Emmylou, Jerry’s on that, Sam Bush is on that…
Iris DeMent did a duet with him, and that’s something he wanted to do.
Rob: My first time being around her, as well. I was blown away when I heard her singing.
Ronnie: She came in and overdubbed a number. She was like, “I don’t know. Is this too high for me?” We said, “Sing it.” She said, “I don’t know. I’ll be yelling this.” She belted it out, and it was something she wasn’t used to. She kind of sings lower range and does duets. She belted it out, and it was great.
Rob: She’s got a set of pipes!
Were you guys forced out of your musical comfort zones, as well?
Ronnie: I don’t think so. We had to do some of his songs that we weren’t used to.
Rob: Once we started out on the road with it, we had to do a lot more than what was on the record for our full show. We had to learn a lot of his material.
Ronnie: “Copperhead Road” and stuff like that. He played the mandolin, and I played the mandolin. We did this thing where we’d come out on the side of the stage as an encore and walk toward each other, playing mandolin.
We played a lot of those tunes that he did on the previous record, which had Peter Rowan on it and Huskey and Norman Blake played guitar. It’s an acoustic record, Train a Comin’.
Y’all mentioned that people in Nashville seemed curious about what Steve Earle and a bluegrass band might sound like together once you started playing these songs live. Over the past 20 years, you had Dwight Yoakam, Dolly Parton, Dierks Bentley and others dabbling in bluegrass. Would the concept behind The Mountain seem more normal now?
Rob: I’d say it’s a little more normal now because it’s happened a lot. Alan Jackson cut one, too. You know, there’s a lot of those country people who either came from bluegrass or know something about it. They’re fans of the music. A lot of the ones that do it already had a lot of success in the country world, and they’re looking for something different. It’s probably something they always wanted to do, and now’s the time when they don’t have a major label telling them no, it’s the kiss of death for your career.