In his liner notes to The Mountain, Steve Earle explains his goal in making a bluegrass 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 out of this world." By "Mr. Bill" he means Bill Monroe, and by the rest of the sentence he means he's out of his mind. Even if he just started playing the shit, he ought to know bluegrass isn't a medium for bad-boy artist types stuck on self-expression. The push-button precision of bluegrass is what makes it tick like Kraftwerk the music works as a memory machine, an elegy machine, punching up ghosts and transmitting them into the sad, yonder blue. Allison Krauss knows how to work the controls; that's why she gets to turn crass old Brit-rock hits from Bad Company and the Foundations into mandolin wind for mountain malls. Steve Earle doesn't have the constitution for any kind of formal precision, so he shouldn't worry his head over making a real bluegrass record. But his audacity in trying is what makes The Mountain work. It's spunky. It's a mess. It's full of gumption. It's got a good beat, and you can clog to it.
Hippie rock and rollers dug bluegrass for its noodly jam-band potential and its infinitely overstatable mythic potential, resulting in lots of mush-minded fusion over the years. The strictures of bluegrass format, like the strictures of the three-minute pop single, have rhythmic payoffs that the hippie diddlers couldn't hear well enough to exploit. So instead the world got banjo prog and the Dillards' Beatle covers. But Earle respects the bluegrass beat, and what keeps The Mountain going is rhythm, which Earle takes to with the fervor of the belated convert. His backup is the Del McCoury Band pedigreed pros, as famous in their world as Steve is in his, who have their own slickly executed new album out (The Family, Ceili Music, 329 Rockland Road, Hendersonville, TN 37075). He lets them drive the tempo, but he slops around enough to loosen them up, opening the music for no-grass rock and rollers to hear.
One bluegrass trope Earle couldn't touch if he tried is high-lonesome harmony when he enlists Del McCoury to sing background tenor backup, the mismatch gets powerful rough on the ears. Earle's singing has its informed admirers, but his curse as well as his charm is that vocally, poor Steve couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with another barn. When the tempo drags, he can't resist indulging his timbre's natural slackness, and the results defy description. (Will Oldham registering a complaint at the Wal-Mart customer service desk through one of Tom Waits's speakerphones while jogging downstairs? Close enough.) In not just his Southern-rock but his folkie mode, trotted out on 1994's "noncommercial" Train a Comin', Earle slows down and oversings, making records like the critically acclaimed (at the time) I Feel Alright sound like a wet roll of Charmin. The Mountain does wonders for Earle's voice by forcing him to huff and puff just to keep up. At this brisk, jerky pace, Earle sounds friendly, relaxed, well-meaning. As even his diehard fans will admit after a couple of beers, this is a man who should never hold a note for a second beat.
Besides the vocals, the most unbluegrass thing about The Mountain is that the lyrics all make sense nothing here about picking up dead hitchhikers or shooting bears in the ass just to hear them yell. Good for Earle, who knows his strengths are folk-not-country literalism and country-not-rock narrative. In first-person stories like "Dixieland," the tale of an Irish immigrant fighting at Gettysburg, the lyrics have a distinctly well-researched feel. If Steve could slobber as eloquently as Shane MacGowan, he wouldn't need research, but he can't and he knows it. With no special interest in Appalachians as such, he assumes the voice of Texan hobos, dust-bowl Okies, and other noble downtroddens. His class consciousness is a folkie's, which clashes with the regional class consciousness of the beat; the songs name-check Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, but omit the déclassé West Virginia, an obvious snub. There's also "Carrie Brown," which carries on the curse of the '90s boutique-country album with a really pompous murder ballad, but even that one is kind of catchy.
So: would any of these songs cut it at the Galax Fiddlers' Convention? Probably not even if they had sing-along appeal, Earle's voice doesn't exactly invite anyone to join in. Would I take this album over for dinner to impress my in-laws? No way bluegrass fans demand vocal quality control. But does it rock? Sure does, kicking the rowdy mannerisms of Earle's country-rock style up against bluegrass's perfect beats. Bluegrass forces him to cut down on his fatalistic outlaw shtick, losing beautifully never having been a coal miner's option, and singing about work is an ideal use of his just-doing-my-job-ma'am vocal skills. On The Mountain, Earle sets self-expression aside long enough to burrow into an alien rhythm, one whose mechanical and obsessive qualities have their own tangled meanings. He submits to the beat, and the beat sets him straight.
Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band play Town Hall March 20.
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