Ten years ago, I started a feature that I called "Gold...In A Way" in the local bluegrass association's newsletter. Each issue I would examine a bluegrass 'back catalogue' title that I appreciated. In this way, I looked at albums that either I missed writing about 'the first time around' or albums that pre-dated the time I began writing about roots music. These were albums that I thought were important, albums I cared about for some reason. Of course, the only way these albums would ever be 'gold' is in their musical value, not in copies sold. Most of the following was written in 2005 or therebouts, embellished with information and viewpoints garnered in the interim.
Steve Earle & the Del McCoury Band "The Mountain"
Seldom has an album so polarized the bluegrass community. Some got it, recognizing its respectful intentions; the majority ran from it.
I've played "The Mountain" a hundred times I'm certain. I recently picked up a vinyl copy of the album, and this experience made me appreciate it all over again. I can't say the album sounded any different from the turntable to my ears, but it seems right to own the album in that format.
On both his "Train a Comin'" and "El Corazon" albums, Steve Earle had explored acoustic sounds; the former featured Peter Rowan (The Bluegrass Buddha, as Earle referenced him in "The Mountain's" liner notes), Norman Blake, and Roy Huskey, Jr. accompanying Earle on a collection of stripped-down, country-roots songs, while the latter included the Del McCoury Band sharing the spotlight on the bluegrass number I Still Carry You Around and members of DMB on You Know the Rest. As well, there was word that Earle was sometimes playing bluegrass at small Nashville venues. So it should have come as little surprise that Earle would choose to record not only a bluegrass album with the Del McCoury Band, but also to write all new songs in a bluegrass style. What was a bit of a surprise was how natural, and how darn good, the album sounded.
"I wish I was as sure about anything as Bill Monroe was about everything." That's how Steve Earle started his album notes for "The Mountain;" it's a quote I have often thought about, and too often related to. Later he continued, "This is 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."
Earle has never claimed to be a bluegrass singer, but he does appreciate the music. This perhaps wasn't widely known in early 1999 when "The Mountain" was released. On this album, take away Earle`s voice and you have DMB performing as strong an instrumental album as they have ever created. Add Earle`s voice and phrasing to the mix, alongside DMB harmonies, and you have an incredibly challenging and fearsome bluegrass disc. To his credit, Earle makes no attempt to add bluegrass affectations to his gruff and gnarled voice; he sings these songs as he has sung throughout his long and distinguished career- as Steve Earle. Del and Ronnie McCoury add bluegrass harmony vocals in a classic style and their efforts not only add credibility to the project but frame Earle`s voice in a manner that makes it sound even better within the context of these very strong songs.
Carrie Brown is, in my opinion and without qualification, one of the best bluegrass songs ever written and the performance herein is without blemish. Harlan Man is a bluegrass coalmining song that is as angry as it is matter of fact. Notable for the interplay between Ronnie's and Steve`s mando and Robbie McCoury`s banjo, Connemara Breakdown has a Celtic soul augmented by the twin fiddles of Jason Carter and Stuart Duncan.
Additionally, Leroy`s Dust Bowl Blues and Long, Lonesome Highway Blues add earthy elements to the collection. I`m Still in Love with You is a wonderful song featuring Iris DeMent`s distinctive touches; little did we know then how seldom we would hear from DeMent in the next decade. The album's closing gospel number The Pilgrim is effective as 'cameo voice with chorus' pieces seldom are.
Whatever may have happened during the recording of "The Mountain" or during the subsequent tour- who said what, who owed who how much, who did what and when- that led the unfortunate falling out between the Earle and McCoury camps, the fact remains that, in their own small way, the Del McCoury band and Steve Earle influenced the course of bluegrass history by recording a classic bluegrass album that remains in print years after its initial release.
The album was produced with no small ego involved. Earle wrote that his "primary motive in writing these songs was both selfish and ambitious- immortality. 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. Well, we'll see."
The album had an impact, but perhaps not to the degree Earle hoped. It sold well enough to hit #19 on the US country charts; it fared slightly better in Canada where it hit #14. The album didn't break Billboard's Top 100 although it was nominated for a Bluegrass Grammy; my memory tells me it didn't get any love from the International Bluegrass Music Association, but I can't find data to substantiate that claim.
I've heard the occasional song from "The Mountain" at bluegrass jams and festivals, but not frequently by any stretch. The songs from the album have rarely been covered and when they have, from my research, most frequently by non-national artists. Levon Helm handled The Mountain on his "Dirt Farmer" album of a few years ago. Most recently, both Wanda Jackson and Keller Williams (& the Travelin' McCourys) interpreted The Graveyard Shift. I've heard Pilgrim played at a funeral. When I saw Earle with the Bluegrass Dukes a few years ago, songs from the album remained front and center. Originally released on Earle's own E-Squared label, the album was reissued several years later on New West.
Earle states that "The Mountain" was born the night Mr. Monroe joined him and his "Train a Comin'" band onstage in Tennessee. As that event displayed a binding of the generations, as an album "The Mountain" attracted his base not only to their first bluegrass album, but to bluegrass music. And some of them have stayed.
I don't know how Bill Monroe would have reacted to "The Mountain." I suspect he would have been just fine with it; after all, Earle was born in Fort Monroe, Virginia.