As much as Steve Earle has been known for his rocking, electric approach to country music, the idea that he'd make a bluegrass album is not as remote as it might seem.
For one thing, Earle has often used acoustic guitar on his albums and has always threaded a hint of bluegrass through his amped-up twangy sound. In 1995 he showed a talent for all-acoustic songwriting with his CD Train A Comin'. And in 1997, in the middle of an otherwise rocking electric CD, El Corazon, Earle included "I Still Carry You Around," a full-on bluegrass romp recorded with the Del McCoury Band.
Given those facts, it should be no surprise that Earle and the Del McCoury Band have gone from the first date of "I Still Carry You Around" to a full-fledged collaboration on the newly released bluegrass CD, The Mountain.
Earle wrote all 14 songs on Mountain and invited the Del McCoury Band -- Del McCoury (rhythm guitar/vocals), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin/vocals), Rob McCoury (banjo), Jason Carter (fiddle) and Mike Bub (bass) -- to back him, largely because of that group's outlook on the bluegrass form.
"Del has always owned this little place in bluegrass that's totally about songs," Earle says. "They throw the instrumental on there that's really fast here and there, but when Del's singing, normally it's kind of medium stuff or in the medium tempo.... But it's just that thing, when you get past a certain speed, you lose the groove.
"I do equate [bluegrass] with bebop in the sense that it is about time, but it's not about how fast you play it or the infinite number of beats you can divide a note into," Earle says, turning his thoughts to a more general philosophy about bluegrass. "It's not about that, and sometimes people reach a level of technical proficiency that takes out the heart in it. That makes for bad bluegrass, bad jazz, bad rock, bad anything."
Earle's entry into bluegrass, though, doesn't make sense merely on a musical level. It's fitting on a symbolic level as well. Over a 13-year recording career, the San Antonio, Texas, native and Nashville resident has grown into the epitome of the country-music outsider. And bluegrass, at least to Earle, represents the original form of alternative country music.
"The first bluegrass I ever saw was Bill Monroe at the Grand Ol' Opry when I was seven years old," says Earle, now 44. "It was really immediately obvious that this music was different than everything else on the Opry. What I didn't know then, at seven, was by that time Nashville was already making its first conscious move toward an urban audience, and bluegrass was the very first thing shoved out. Monroe was having trouble getting on the radio by that time."
Early in his career, it appeared that rather than becoming a country-music rebel, Earle might actually tweak country music to suit his tastes. His 1986 debut, Guitar Town, struck a near-perfect balance between edgy rock and hardcore twang, and for a time -- albeit brief -- the country-music mainstream embraced Earle's music. Industry observers thought he had opened the door for an entire group of independent-minded artists (such as Joe Ely, Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett) to make a major impact in the genre.
But the country-music establishment and Earle grew more estranged with each subsequent album. Especially with Copperhead Road (1988) and The Hard Way (1990), Earle's sound increasingly became more electric, harder rocking and defiant. Country music, meanwhile, grew more safe, upbeat and poppy, as artists such as Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire and Shania Twain became top stars in the '90s.
"Guitar Town was a No. 1 country album," Earle notes. "But I wouldn't do certain things that they decided were necessary to take the next step. That's really all it was about. And the rest of my relationship with MCA Records was a war. You know, I've never made a record I'm ashamed of."
This shift toward rock came as Earle was heading into a downward spiral on a personal level. As the '80s came to a close, he was drawn further into a heroin habit he had started at age 13.
By the early '90s, many of Earle's friends wondered if he was about to become a casualty. His deal was over with MCA Records, and he wasn't writing music or recording. Earle was frequently seen hanging out in the rough neighborhoods of South Nashville, looking thin, strung out on drugs and lacking anything resembling purpose.
At this point Earle hit what was both his low point and his salvation. He was arrested for heroin possession on September 13, 1994. When he missed a hearing, Earle landed in jail. Early in his sentence, he signed up for a substance-abuse treatment program. He has been clean ever since.
Earle says he doesn't have much use for regrets nowadays, but he clearly realizes how close he came to losing everything.
"I was almost dead," he says of the period in which he wallowed around South Nashville in a drugged-out haze. "I feel like Muhammad Ali. I feel like I did lose four and a half or five years in my prime. But then again, that's an illusion to a certain extent because I'm writing an incredible amount of stuff, and the quality is pretty high."
Indeed, since being released from prison after a two-month stay, Earle has been in peak form. First came Train A Comin', which earned a Grammy nomination. Then came a pair of first-rate rock records, I Feel Alright in 1996 and El Corazon in 1997, followed now by The Mountain.
"I think it's the best stuff I've ever done," Earle says matter-of-factly.
Which brings us back to The Mountain and what it means for Earle's once-again-busy career.
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In other interviews Earle has hinted that acoustic music may soon become his primary musical setting. He hedges on that statement somewhat now, but it's clear he's feeling more comfortable with an acoustic sound.
"My first instrument was acoustic guitar, and I've always done solo tours," he says. "And I'm always doing very acoustic things on my records. But I'm getting to be a better guitar player, and acoustic guitar playing is naked. But I'm getting to be a better electric guitar player than I was, too. And I'm writing a rock record right now. I'll make it in the fall. But this isn't my last bluegrass record. The next step is going to be to put my own bluegrass band together.
"I'm just like trying to catch the wave and not planning it too much," Earle continues. "I mean, I couldn't say right now what the record after the one I'm writing right now is going to be. But by the time I start recording the next record, I'll probably know because I just sort of have to ... I have to have something to work toward."
Steve Earle performs Monday, April 5, at the Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas, at 8 p.m. Tickets for cabaret-style seating are $22.50 and $29. Call (713)629-3700 or (713)230-1600 for more information.