Songs from the Mountain

Del McCoury Band & Steve Earle

Vic Theatre - Chicago

March 25, 1999

First Appeared in The Music Box, May 1999, Volume 6, #5

Written by John Metzger


Bluegrass music has certainly been around for a long time. It's managed to survive for decades, developing a loyal and sometimes rabid following, while occasionally flirting with more mainstream music. First, there was Bill Monroe, and then in the '70s there was the Jerry Garcia/David Grisman collaboration Old and in the Way. More recently, Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss have drawn attention to the genre. Now, it seems it's Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band's turn in the bluegrass spotlight.

Not that Del McCoury is new to the bluegrass scene. He was an apprentice of Monroe's in the '60s, and his latest self-titled group, which also features his sons Ron and Rob, very well may be the finest bluegrass outfit touring today. Joining forces with outlaw country-rocker Steve Earle just might have what it takes to bring bluegrass to a wider audience once again.

The collaboration between Earle and the Del McCoury Band began with I Still Carry You Around, which appeared on Earle's El Corazón. It worked so well from every possible perspective that they chose to do an entire album together, and they debuted a number of the songs at last year's Farm Aid concert. In March, they released The Mountain, which complements the McCoury Band's own recent release The Family.

On March 25, Earle and the Del McCoury Band settled into the Vic Theatre in Chicago — as unlikely a setting as any for a bluegrass concert. However, over the course of their three-hour performance, the ensemble managed to transform the venue into a quaint get-together that radiated a small-town mood from the coal mines of Kentucky to the San Antonio sun.  Huddled around a single microphone, the six musicians delivered more than 40 songs over the course of two sets. It was an intimate arrangement that allowed the group to interact and change the dynamics simply by taking a few steps forward or backward from the central microphone.

Banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar, and bass intertwined into one fluid gesture with remarkable ease. Bass and guitar kept the songs moving, banjo added texture, and fiddle and mandolin added emotion that ranged from exuberant celebration to teary-eyed sadness. Likewise, vocals magically slid together, achieving perfect harmony as Del McCoury's tenor complemented Earle's western drawl, and Ron McCoury gracefully harmonized with his father.

The evening was evenly paced as Earle and the McCoury Band sans Del opened the show, tearing through a number of songs from their new album. This portion was highlighted by a heartfelt reading of Earle's My Old Friend the Blues as well as the conjoined mining stories of Harlan Man and The Mountain. Earle described these songs as coming from the same place, with the former being told by a young miner and the latter capturing that same person years later, looking back on his life.

As Earle left the stage, Del McCoury joined his band to give the audience a true taste of bluegrass. They sprinkled songs from The Family throughout their set, delivering a fun-filled rendition of John Sebastian's Nashville Cats and the scorching, Ron McCoury-penned instrumental Red Eyes on a Mad Dog.

Earle returned to the stage to open the second half of the show with an endearing solo acoustic set. Earle has long-been superior in concert compared to his studio output. While Earle's albums have often been baked with far too many harder-edged guitars, at heart, he has never failed to deliver quality songwriting. This was never so apparent as during this portion of the show, when Earle clearly paid tribute to his many influences.

Earle's songs have always captured the spirit of the many great Texas singer/songwriters, while blending them with more contemporary legends like Bob Dylan (Leroy's Dustbowl Blues) and Neil Young (Taneytown). Perhaps the strongest song of the solo acoustic set was the brilliant No. 29, which looked back on a sad story of a high school friend. Earle delivered a lengthy spoken-word piece to set up the song, drawing to mind some of the epic performances by Bruce Springsteen.

The evening concluded with the full entourage on stage. They tackled additional material from The Mountain, and several classic Earle tracks such as Mystery Train Pt. 2 and Hillbilly Highway. The group even managed to turn the classic Beatles' song I'm Looking Through You into a stunning jaunt, fitting for a country barn dance.

When all is said and done, this evening was about bringing bluegrass to a wider audience. Most of those in attendance did clearly come to see Steve Earle, and though they hung with him when he was on stage, they were somewhat lost over the course of many of the bluegrass numbers — particularly when Earle took a breather. Yet, in the end, the Del McCoury Band and bluegrass music prevailed, grabbing the audience's attention, not by sheer bombast, but by intricate, interwoven melodies performed by a group of exquisitely talented musicians. Together, the ensemble brought a whole lot of laid-back country atmosphere to a stressed-out city that truly needed it.

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Copyright © 1999 The Music Box