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Steve Earle: the music chameleon goes bluegrass

By Jeffrey B. Remz, January 1999

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Earle says "The Mountain" was recorded "all pretty much live, so didn't take a lot of time to record."

"It was a pretty easy process," McCoury says.

The first go round was three days, and they spent five more days in September.

"Del has brought back the one mike thing," Earle says. "That's the way I've been performing with Del. We didn't quite do that in the studio. I was on one side, and they were all on the other side facing me which worked better for all of us.'

"We recorded until we got the take," Earle says. "We all got around this tangle of microphones that Ray Kennedy set up."

"To me when I was as a kid, watching bluegrass as a kid, one of the most exciting things was the choreography around a mike," Earle says.

"Bluegrass is the original alternative country music," Earle says.

While a few guest musicians also played, McCoury's band is there throughout. Earle did consider using a bunch of different players. "I thought about it, but it was much easier to do it with one band that plays together all the time," Earle says. "I didn't have the energy or the time to make 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken,' and it's already been made."

"I think they're the best band in bluegrass right now. Ronnie's getting fucking frightening. Del's the best tenor also. So that's a pretty strong case also."

"They play absolutely telepathic rhythm together," Earle concludes. "That's why this band is so fucking great."

"I was trying to write songs that worked on these instruments," Earle says of the trials and tribulations of writing bluegrass songs. "Some of it's pretty strictly bluegrass by anyone's definition, and some of it is outside of it. The stuff that's outside of that is older than bluegrass ("Outlaw's Honeymoon") That's like an old string band record. Those things are all a part why bluegrass became what it did."

"The Graveyard Shift" is a blues number.

Earle duets with Iris Dement on "I'm Still in Love With You." He heard her sing in a festival in Australia a few years ago and decided he just had to write a song with a duet with her in mind.

"That was just the latest in that fascination with real duets. There's been one on every record for awhile...I was standing in the audience watching her sing. I told her I would write a duet, but she didn't believe me."

"It came out sounding like a Louvin Brothers record," he says.

The song was recorded live. "We actually sang our individual parts," Earle says. "The only things that are overdubbed are Ronnie's and Del's harmonies. They weren't familiar with the material."

Earle's favorite song is the title track. "I think it's the best song on the record," he says, adding, "It's the one I'm proudest of. I like 'I'm Still in Love With You.' It's a challenge writing a duet. I like songs like that. They're real simple songs like that."

"I can write 'Carrie Brown,' 'My Old Friend the Blues,' 'Valentine's Day' all day," Earle says. Referring to duets, "Those are harder to write. They just have to be exactly right."

One of the most touching songs is "Pilgrim," written by Earle on the day of Huskey's funeral.

"I was asked to sing, and I couldn't find anything I was as comfortable with singing, so I wrote something," Earle says.

The tight timing did not throw him. "I do pretty well with deadlines. That was hard because I lost a friend, but that's just what I do."

Helping out on backing chorus are Huskey's widow, Lisa and children Taylor and J.T., Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Sam Bush and Tim O'Brien also lend their voices.

"'Pilgrim' was kind of cool," says Earle. "It was the wild card. It wasn't recorded completely live because we couldn't get everyone together. There were all people who worked with Roy a lot, including his kids and wife The rest of the vocal sessions were done in three different sessions. We just couldn't schedule everyone at once."

"The first time we heard it back, all the girls were in the room cried, and the guys should have. We're guys so we didn't.

"It worked the way it was supposed to. You don't know you've realized it until you've actually finished it."

Earle tried recording "Outlaw's Honeymoon" for "El Corazon," but it was a no go. "I tried it solo sort of the way I tried 'South Nashville Blues,' but it didn't work that way."

Earle has not spent all his time honing his bluegrass skills. He recently returned from another writing stint in Ireland. He has been working on a book of nine short series, destined to be published this summer by Houghton Mifflin. More work remains for Earle.

His experiences in Ireland affected "The Mountain." "All my instrumentals ("Connemara Breakdown" and "Paddy on the Beat") are very heavily influenced by my time I spent in Ireland, and these songs definitely are."

McCoury and Earle will join forces for touring starting in March at the Station Inn in Nashville before spreading out around the U.S. with McCoury opening and then being joined by Earle before he launches into his own solo set.

But that will not be the last you hear of Earle in his latest musical venture.

The musical chameleon isn't hanging up his bluegrass credentials just yet. "My next record will be a rock record. I genuinely love bluegrass. Now that I discovered I can write it, I'll do it again. If it sucked..."

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