20 years ago this month: Steve Earle and the Dl McCoury Band Scale The Mountain

Unlikely Collaborators Take an Unexpected Turn but Still Reach a New Peak

Steve Earle and The Del McCoury Band The Mountain, Artemis 1999

At first glimpse, it seemed like a most unexpected collaboration, what with a renegade insurgent finding common ground with a respected band of old school bluegrass troubadours.

Nevertheless, Steve Earle’s connection with the Del McCoury Band propelled each entity to a new plateau, one which brought renewed respectability to the former and wider recognition to the latter. Both sides  had prospered within their respected circles — Earle as an insurgent force in the seminal world of aspiring Americana and the McCourys as old school road warriors determined to preserved Appalachian tradition. While it might have seemed surprising that they found such synergy — in truth, The Mountain sounds much more like a McCoury album than it does an Earle effort — they were bound by a common admiration and appreciation of Bill Monroe, one Earle cites in the liner notes.

“He alone, as far as I know, could claim to have single-handedly invented an American art form…This is my interpretation, to the best of my ability and with all my heart (and 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. Some of it probably has him turning over in his grave.”

While Monroe might not have admired Earle’s outlaw persona — especially the fact that he served prison time as a result of a heroin habit — there’s nothing here in this set of songs, all of which were penned by Earle himself, that ventures too far beyond the bounds of a grassicana norm. With the vocals shared between Earle, Del and Ronnie McCoury, and fiddles, mandolin, stand-up bass and guitar providing the essential instrumental additives, The Mountain soars high over the heartland. A distinguished array of special guests add their acumen and ability as well — among them, Sam Bush, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Douglas, Iris Dement, Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings and Tim O’Brien — adding further credence and craft in the process.

Happily, the music proves worthy of this essential investment, and while most if not all of it is of a decidedly back porch variety, several songs would become  an intrinsic part of Earle’s individual repertoire — the defiant title track, the Irish infused “Dixieland” and the rugged “Harlan Man,” chief among them.

Likewise, though it swerved from his otherwise daring and defiant stance, The Mountain clearly found Earle at the peak of his prowess while showing an unlikely reverence for his roots.

 

“My primary motive in writing these songs was both selfish and ambitious — immortality,” he says later in the liner notes. “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 out of this world.”

While it may still be too soon to know definitively if he’s achieved his goal, there’s no reason to believe his wish won’t eventually come to pass.

 

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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