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Steve Earle: the music chameleon goes bluegrass

By Jeffrey B. Remz, January 1999

First Steve Earle dished out country with some edge to it. Then, he veered more towards rock.

And then a folkie/Dylanesque side with musically spare sounding recordings.

The music chameleon justifies that title yet again on his new CD, "The Mountain," as he delves firmly into bluegrass in an album recorded with The Del McCoury Band, one of the best in the business today.

"I've always been a fan," says Earle in an interview from his E-Squared Record offices. "My whole first record is based on one big G run. Bluegrass has always influenced what I did. When I first moved here in 1974, the bluegrassers and the left of center country (musicians) hung out together. I know Vassar Clements for years. That's where I know Peter Rowan from."

This is not the first time Earle and the Del McCoury Band - Del on guitar and backing vocals, Rob McCoury on banjo, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin and vocals, Mike Bub on bass and Jason Carter on fiddle - joined forces. On Earle's musically diverse "El Corazon" from 1997, they recorded "I Still Carry You Around" together.

In fact, Del McCoury wasn't familiar with Earle until then.

"I remember hearing 'Copperhead Head' on the radio and 'Guitar Town,' says McCoury, on the phone from his home. "I really didn't know much about Steve until we recorded his song. I never actually met Steve (before) because we were probably playing different venues. I never met him until I moved down to Nashville (seven years ago)."

"Really, I never got familiar with his music too well until we recorded," says the affable McCoury.

The same cannot be said of Earle's knowledge of McCoury.

"I've been listening to him for years," says Earle, 44.

In 1990, McCoury recorded Earle's "Call Me If You Need a Fool" for his "The Blue Side of Town" album.

"When I got out of jail (Earle was jailed for about a year for drug possession), I played at a lot of bluegrass festivals - we did Telluride and Merlefest. Ronnie (McCoury, Del's son) started coming out to gig."

Based in Nashville, Earle used to head to the 12th & Porter club to take in bluegrass gigs. "I started hearing the Sidemen on Tuesday night," Earle says.

The group included Bub and Ronnie McCoury.

"I got into going down there," Earle says.

Earle gained his first notoriety with the edgy "Guitar Town" from 1986, which earned him his first Grammy nomination. His songs were filled with stories. By his fourth disc, "Copperhead Road," the Virginia native developed a harder edge.

And he was also considered hard to deal with, never fitting it into the go-along, get-along Nashville lifestyle.

MCA dropped him. He went through numerous marriages and became mired in drug use.

When released from the pokey, Earle recorded the soft "Train A Comin'," a very strong comeback album. He has repeatedly hit the mark since with "I Feel Alright" the following year and "El Corazon."

A bluegrass recording wasn't in his original plans. He wanted to make another "Train a Comin'."

"But Roy Huskey got sick and died, (and) I couldn't see plugging another bass player into it," Earle says.

The recording of "I Still..." on "El Corazon" inspired Earle on to do more of the same. The song "turned out so well and was so much fun. I was decided I was going to write a bluegrass a record, I mean a hardcore bluegrass record."

McCoury says Earle told him, "'You know I'm going to write a bluegrass album.' I thought, man that's probably going to happen in 20 years."

McCoury may have doubted Earle, but obviously shouldn't have.

"During the 'El Corazon' recording, I wrote most of these songs," says Earle.

"We started talking about doing it," Earle says of he and McCoury. "We recorded it in two sets of sessions. One was last June and went back again in September."

It didn't take too much to convince McCoury to participate. "I knew for one thing that he was a good songwriter, a musician and singer," McCoury says. "He had so many good songs. I knew if he did write a bluegrass album, I knew they would be good songs. I just knew that because of his past. That's why I said, 'heck, we'll just do it because I know he'll have good songs. And I know it won't be that hard to do."

But a few things intervened on the way to making the album. For starters, Warner Brothers, which released his last two discs refused to put out a bluegrass album, according to Earle.

"This is a bluegrass record," says Earle. "They told me I couldn't make a bluegrass record. I told them to fuck off."

Earle is putting out the disc once again on his own label, E-Squared.

E-Squared had distribution through Warner Brothers. But that deal is over, and Earle isn't complaining one bit. Warner funded E-Squared, which has acts like Cheri Knight and The V-Roys.

"Indy labels being funded (by majors) just doesn't work. I managed to get out of that with all my bands. I have to stay solvent for the label to stay solvent."

That will mean Earle will continue recording for major labels to pay the bills.

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