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In a music world that values the latest thing, bluegrass has had to battle a reputation from some quarters that it is an archaic music form that belongs to a time and place long since gone.
In recent years, though, bluegrass has gotten a shot in the arm from the breakthrough success of Alison Krauss and Union Station. And now Steve Earle will prompt more people to recognize the timeless art of bluegrass with The Mountain, his new CD recorded with the venerable bluegrass group, the Del McCoury Band.
The Mountain succeeds on many levels, first and foremost because the emphasis is on Earle's greatest strength, his songwriting. Too often bluegrass musicians fall into the same trap that flaws many jazz albums and live performances: Songs serve as little more than starting points for solos that showcase the talents of the players.
On The Mountain, however, the most noticeable attribute of the music is the melodies. Of course, coming from a songwriter whose catalog includes such indelible rocking country songs as "The Devil's Right Hand," "Guitar Town" and "Copperhead Road," this shouldn't be a surprise.
The CD is filled with worthy tunes, but three songs from The Mountain rate with virtually any music Earle has written. The title song is a mandolin-drenched midtempo ballad whose stark melody echoes the sadness, anger and despair of the lyrics. The winsome ballad "I'm Still in Love with You" gives guest vocalist Iris DeMent the kind of soaring melody that's perfectly suited to the aching twang in her voice. DeMent's singing is so strong, in fact, that she virtually steals the song from Earle, whose own vocals seem almost superfluous. "Outlaw's Honeymoon," a playful tune that boasts the CD's catchiest instrumental hook, actually borrows from the string band sound that predated bluegrass itself.
The songs on The Mountain also excel in an area that sometimes seems like an afterthought in bluegrass: the lyrics. Considering that Earle has always been one of music's finest storytellers, the lyrical appeal of Mountain shouldn't come as a shock.
The best lyric comes on the song "The Mountain," which finds an old coal miner he fiercely expressing his love for the mountain where he has lived his entire life but also lamenting how the beauty of his surroundings was recklessly scarred forever by the very coal-mining company that paid his salary.
Another memorable tale emerges on "Carrie Brown," a tune Earle describes as a "hillbilly murder song." It's about a man who makes good on his pledge that "If I can't marry Carrie Brown, I believe I'd rather die." And "Leroy's Dustbowl Blues" weaves a tale of a farmer who, after his land is ruined in a dust storm, heads to California. The farmer finds that the farming work is a far cry from the bright lights, glamour and prosperity he thought he'd experience in his new home.
The song-first focus of The Mountain is also reflected in the pace of the songs, none of which will set any land speed records. The CD, in fact, rarely accelerates beyond midtempo. Even the CD's two instrumentals, "Connemara Breakdown" and "Paddy on the Beat," are deliberate tunes in which the solos help form the melodic structure of the songs rather than act as side trips where the musicians get to show off their virtuosity.
That's not to say there isn't stellar musicianship on the CD. With a few concise solos and lead lines, Ronnie McCoury shows he has few peers as a mandolin player, and fiddle player Jason Carter gets in more than a few licks of his own.
Just as impressive is the playing of Earle and the Del McCoury Band as a unit. The lead instruments of fiddle, mandolin and banjo weave around each other without ever competing for space. Meanwhile, Earle and Del McCoury (on acoustic guitars) and bassist Mike Bub form a solid yet supple rhythm section.
In his liner notes, Earle pays tribute to the late Bill Monroe, the father of modern bluegrass music, and says he suspects the spirit of "Mr. Bill" is both smiling on some of the songs on The Mountain and probably spinning in his grave over others.
It's true that Monroe had strict standards for what he considered acceptable in the music he helped invent. But it's hard to imagine anyone coming away from The Mountain with anything but respect and affection for the music Earle and the Del McCoury Band have created together.
-- Alan Sculley
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