Steve Earle & the Del McCoury Band
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 1999, Volume 6, #7
Written by John Metzger
While those clamoring for Steve Earle's usual guitar-fueled anthems might be disappointed with The Mountain, fans of his songwriting will find his first full-length venture into bluegrass to be an overwhelming success. It's true that The Mountain is a bit of a musical departure from Earle's usual fare, however, he has long-been the country-rock outsider. Given that bluegrass music was the original alternative country genre, this style was a natural progression for Earle to take. Buried beneath a layer of fiddle, banjo, and mandolin, the songwriting is still the same high-quality material that Earle has always been able to write.
Earle has long wanted to make a bluegrass record to pay tribute to his songwriting hero Peter Rowan as well as the genre's founder Bill Monroe, with whom he performed in 1995. On Earle's 1997 release El Corazón, he first hinted at this latest course for his music on the track I Still Carry You Around, which was also his first collaboration with the Del McCoury Band.
Several decades ago, McCoury was a disciple of Monroe, and he has in-turn brought his sons Ronnie and Rob into the fold, respectively playing mandolin and banjo. Rounding out the group is Jason Carter on fiddle, and Mike Bub on bass. Earle truly couldn't find a better group with which to work, and since the 1997 sessions went so well, he invited them to work with him on The Mountain. The full ensemble has since taken the music from this release on the road, and have been performing shows that simply should not be missed.
On The Mountain, Earle and the Del McCoury Band created invigorating and vital music that only becomes more spirited in a live setting. Leroy's Dustbowl Blues is a hard-driving, blues-based piece that draws from mid-'60s Bob Dylan, while Texas Eagle laments the demise of the railroad industry with a sadness that pervades the piece despite the galloping dance of the instrumentation.
There are tender moments on The Mountain as well, and these are among the best tracks on the disc. The album-closing Pilgrim is a gospel-tinged number that builds to an anthemic hymn, as the assembled choir fills the song with hope in the face of death. On I'm Still in Love with You, Carter's fiddle weeps with heartbroken agony as Earle swaps vocals with Iris DeMent. In addition, the title track is told from the perspective of a retired miner who looks back on his town after the business has moved elsewhere. It's a heartfelt selection that Earle and the Del McCoury Band fill with both sorrow and pride.
In the end, The Mountain is an album that should appeal to fans of Earle and the Del McCoury Band, while exposing both groups' legions to new musical terrain. It's a true display of teamwork that features remarkable songwriting and exemplary musicianship. There's no doubt that The Mountain is an outstanding effort, and though we haven't yet reached the year's halfway point, it is almost certain to be on quite a few lists of the year's best albums.
The Mountain is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 1999 The Music Box