In the liner notes to his new bluegrass album, Steve Earle concedes his primary motive for engaging in the project in the first place was to achieve immortality.
An "ambitious and selfish" desire to be sure, but as Earle puts it, he "wanted to write just one song that would be performed by at least one band at every bluegrass festival in the world" long after he follows the genre's founder and spiritual father, Bill Monroe, to that home on high.
Musical immortality was the last thing on Earle's mind just a few years ago. After spearheading country music's New Traditionalist movement in the mid-Eighties with the critical and commercial success of his debut album, Guitar Town, Earle fell headlong into a personal and professional tailspin, which at various points would find him as a junkie, a convict, and a pariah within Nashville's image-conscious music community.
Earle hasn't exactly mellowed in recent years, but he does seem to have found a crucial degree of stability after hitting the depths in 1994. Contrary to the cliche (misery is creativity's best fuel), Earle's personal rebound might have actually saved his art.
"I think I'm writing the best stuff I've written," Earle says. "I'm certainly writing a lot more. In the months of October and November alone, I wrote 19,000 words of prose, five poems, and four songs. I've never had a point in my life where I've written that much."
Born in Virginia, Earle grew up in Texas, in a small town north of San Antonio. By age sixteen he left home to become a musician. Settling with a relative in Houston, he came under the sway of a number of Texas troubadours whom he considered idols, most notably the late, great Townes Van Zandt. After spending a few years on the Texas coffeehouse circuit, Earle made the inevitable jump to Nashville to become a star. But success didn't come easily for a performer as unvarnished as Earle. In the Seventies Nashville was squarely in the throes of the Countrypolitan and Urban Cowboy eras.
Apprenticing with Texas compatriot Guy Clark, Earle earned a publishing deal and became a staff writer. Although he had a couple of songs recorded (and another nearly cut by Elvis), times were tough. Eight years after his arrival in Music City, he finally recorded an independently released album of rockabilly tunes that went nowhere. A deal with Epic records was a bigger fiasco, as the label shelved a finished album and a two-year relationship with the headstrong singer in 1985.
But by 1986 Nashville was ready for a change. Country music was experiencing a commercial and creative slump as it struggled to overcome the residue that the insipid Urban Cowboy era had left behind. Earle scored a deal with MCA, and along with Dwight Yoakam, established himself as a leader of a new movement back to the music's roots.
The success of Guitar Town (which went to number one, spawned a pair of Top 10 singles, and earned a Grammy nomination) came to the surprise and chagrin of many in the Nashville community who considered Earle something of a heretic for his appearance, his attitude, and his notorious personal habits. When his 1987 followup, Exit 0, failed to reach the commercial heights of its predecessor, many in Nashville were eager to turn their backs on Earle. Before they had the chance, Earle turned his back on them.
Moving to MCA's pop offices in Los Angeles, Earle's 1988 album Copperhead Road was written and marketed with the intention of bringing him stardom as a rock act. As his addiction to heroin worsened, Earle began to imagine himself as a kind of hillbilly Keith Richards. Romanticizing his habits in song and mythologizing himself in the process, Earle trod a dangerous path. His subsequent releases, 1990's The Hard Way and 1991's Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator, were documents of an artist struggling to determine his musical allegiance. Worse, the effects of his drug habit and excessive lifestyle seemed to be invading his work.
With his drug addiction intensifying and his weight and health dropping to critical levels, MCA unceremoniously dumped him in the early Nineties. In late 1994, after a series of drug-related arrests, he was sentenced to a jail term. It was the lucky break of his career. Transferring between prison and drug treatment for a few months, Earle emerged clean and ready to reclaim his reputation as an artist.
His self-described "vacation in the ghetto" had not robbed him of his talents as a writer or a singer, and Earle set out to make up for lost time with his all-acoustic "comeback" album Train a Comin'. Combining some of his long-neglected originals and a number of personally significant covers, Train was recorded with a crack band of acoustic players including Peter Rowan, Norman Blake, and Roy Huskey, Jr. -- and the vocals of Emmylou Harris. The record was the most honest and personal of his career.
Earle had finally found his place by making a record that didn't seek to appease any interest other than himself. The Beatles' "I'm Looking Through You" fits in perfectly with Townes Van Zandt's "Tecumseh Valley," and Earle's own rough-hewn originals.
Earning critical praise and a major-label deal with Warner Bros., Earle proceeded to wow the critics with 1996's I Feel Alright and the following year's El Corazón. Creatively Earle was born again, exploring themes of race on songs like "Tanneytown" and the death penalty on "Ellis Unit One" from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. He became an outspoken advocate and activist for a number of liberal political causes, and rubbed his personal and artistic independence in the face of a Nashville community that had abandoned him long ago.
Earle started his own label, E-Squared, and signed a number of altcountry acts such as the V-Roys, Six String Drag, and Bap Kennedy. Producing a number of these projects with singer/guitarist Ray Kennedy, another Music Row renegade, Earle was planning a followup to El Corazón when he decided that he wanted to recapture the stripped-down atmosphere of Train a Comin'.
"I'd sort of decided that I wanted the next one to be an acoustic album," Earle says. "Around the same time, Roy Huskey died, which meant there couldn't be another Train Band record, and I couldn't just see plugging in another bass player into it."
While fate dealt that project a fatal blow with Huskey's death, Earle turned his sights toward the possibility of recording a bluegrass album. Bluegrass vet Del McCoury's involvement in the project was a natural because Earle had already recorded "I Still Carry You Around" with McCoury's band during the El Corazón sessions.
"Del had recorded one of my songs back in 1990," Earle remembers. "And during the time I was touring with the Train Band, we played a number of festivals with Del. I got to know him and Ronnie [McCoury's son and mandolin player]. We had recorded the one side for El Corazón. So it just sort of evolved. It was a pretty organic thing."
For Earle the prospect of writing a bluegrass album and recording it with McCoury, a former member of Bill Monroe's famed Bluegrass Boys, held a special fascination. "The kind of bluegrass I always tended to gravitate toward was the stuff that was the most song oriented," Earle says. "And Del's stuff has always been that way. It's never been about how fast you could play -- it's always been about songs and singing."
The songcraft on The Mountain is nothing short of amazing. Along with a pair of instrumentals, the album features twelve original compositions covering the gamut of folk, bluegrass, and country themes. Earle stamps his personal style on numbers that include mining and labor anthems, murder ballads, war songs, and gospel-tinged explorations. With the McCoury group's aching harmonies and tight musical backing, the album is a thrilling affirmation of the power and timelessness of the form.
The disc opener, "Texas Eagle," is an autobiographical tale that pays tribute to the bygone era of the railroad. As McCoury and his ensemble charge behind him, Earle's gruff vocals lament the passing of an American institution that served as a source of musical inspiration for country artists from Jimmie Rodgers to Johnny Cash. "Leroy's Dustbowl Blues" is Earle's take on Woody Guthrie's classic migrant warning, "Do Re Mi." Earle's character winds from "Broken Bow to Bakersfield" only to realize he's given up his home for a false paradise of palm trees and orange groves. Echoing Guthrie's decades-old refrain, Earle sings, "They say California is a paradise/Hollywood turns night time into day/But up along the San Joaquin those city lights/Might as well be a million miles away."
The heart of the album lies in the songs "Harlan Man" and "The Mountain." Conceived as a suite, the two songs capture the essence of Earle's best character narratives, each telling the story of an East Kentucky miner's existence -- one from the perspective of the past and the other from the present.
The Mountain succeeds on a number of levels, but above all it confirms that Earle is a writer at the peak of his creative powers. Although Earle is too restless an artist to stick to one genre for any length of time, it seems likely that he'll continue to mine the rich milieu of mountain and bluegrass music. "I'm probably not completely over just going out and being really, really brutally loud from time to time, and I am writing another rock record," he says. "But this isn't my last bluegrass album, simply because this stuff is so much fun to play. On top of that I've learned a lot doing it. In the end I think I'm a better writer, a better singer, and a better guitar player after making this record, and I think I'll be even better than that at the end of this tour."
The tour in question will see Earle and the Del McCoury Band perform across the United States, Europe, and Scandinavia though June. In addition to the live dates, Earle and company will be making a number of high-profile television appearances, including a spot on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and a special hourlong broadcast of PBS's Sessions at West 54th.
Earlier this month the Del McCoury Band released The Family on Ricky Skaggs's new Celli Music imprint, a label whose stated focus is primarily on bringing bluegrass music back to the country mainstream. An outspoken critic of the schlock currently being manufactured in Nashville, Earle is weary of trying to guess what's on the minds of Music Row executives.
"I'll certainly do anything I can," he asserts. "But I don't know what they're doing on that other street. I don't try and keep up with them. I've discovered that we all get along a lot better if we don't see each other at all," Earle says with a laugh. "And really, I have no idea what anyone in Nashville is thinking when you get right down to it." It's relatively mild criticism from a man who once described reigning country queen Shania Twain as "Nashville's highest paid lap dancer."
Earle is less generous when he describes the recent end of his relationship with Warner Bros. "Originally I asked to be released and they said no," he relates. "Then I was halfway through making this record, and I discovered they had picked up my option and so they technically owed me an advance for my next record. So I said 'Okay, here's your 450,000 bluegrass records and fuck you again.' And at that point they decided they'd let me go."
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The experience of running his own indie label and trying to break new artists further cemented Earle's low opinion of the major-label mentality. "You always hope they get it," he says. "If they do, then it can all work out great. But it's sort of like sign language or something: You can't make them get it. It can get to be a really frustrating thing. E-Squared will never be associated with a major-label again. I may have to go with a major for my record, and that's a possibility. But it's really a matter of me staying solvent. I have to stay solvent for E-Squared to stay solvent."
According to Earle, by the end of the summer he will have completed writing enough songs to begin work on his new "rock record." He is also finishing up his first writing effort outside of music: a collection of short stories that will be published by Houghton-Mifflin later this year. "It's like nine stories that I've written over a period of about four and a half years, 'cause that's how long I've been out of jail," Earle says.
Another project that Earle is trying to get off the ground is a Western-swing album with his production partner Ray Kennedy. "We were on this cruise that Delbert McClinton does every year, and Joe Ely was in a room on one side of me and Ray Benson [of Asleep at the Wheel] was in the other cabin -- kind of like old-home week in the middle of the Caribbean. And one of the things I talked about with Benson and Buck White was putting together some sort of bad motherfucker Western-swing band around Ray Kennedy and making a record out of it," he recalls.
Like Ernest Hemingway Earle long considered himself a writer who had to be in the thick of things to effectively capture them in his work. And though his wildest days are certainly behind him, Earle's not the type of person to completely abandon his past: "I still have a tendency to get in the middle of shit. I just don't get in the middle of the wrong shit anymore.