Whose grass is it, anyway?
Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band
Ain't so surprising Steve Earle is embracing traditional bluegrass this time around. It's not the first time he's woven plucky bits of Appalachia into his sound; the grass is high on such recent post-rehab records as Train a Comin' and the extraordinary, genre-hopping fiesta El Corazon. And country music's heaviest mother has wrapped his hefty limbs around the mandolin many times, even going as far as applying its tinkly tones to the big-rawk clamor of the smack-happy Copperhead Road.
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But on The Mountain, Earle doesn't just flirt with bluegrass; he ties it up and calls it Mommy. Enlisting the backing of the Del McCoury Band--widely regarded as Bill Monroe's bastard stepsons--Earle delivers a loose-knit collection of 14 originals that pit the genre's requisite banjo-mando-fiddle-upright bass hues against his gruff-and-tumble presence. It's a highly visceral and often rewarding combination, albeit one that might cause hardcore devotees of bluegrass' strangely manicured sound to tug at their facial hair in distress. The record proffers blue-collar folkloric visions, both rollicking (the love-murder anecdote "Carrie Brown," the train lament "Texas Eagle") and spiritual ("The Mountain"). And there's "Pilgrim," the final salvo, a solemn tribute to late bassist Roy Huskey Jr. that features a stellar cast of harmony vocalists (Gillian Welch, Marty Stuart, the always angelic Emmylou Harris) who help Earle pull off the song's thematic heaviness.
But for all its peaks, The Mountain also has its valleys, including several songs that sound like rehashes ("Dixieland," Earle's obligatory Celtic workout; "Leroy's Dustbowl Blues," culled lazily from Steinbeck 101) with vocals often as flat as roadkill. Earle's husky vocal-chords-in-the-nostrils singing style has always been a forgivable weakness, but here, among the acoustic nekkidness of the form, it's more difficult than usual to look the other way; his inadequacies become particularly evident on the shufflin' "I'm Still in Love with You," on which he gets lost amid a wondrous performance by Iris DeMent. If only there were more moments like "Carrie Brown," which finds Del McCoury wrapping his high-lonesome tenor around Earle's lead vocals, creating a melody that stings like a whip.
Mostly, the fundamental problem with The Mountain is the concept itself. As El Corazon demonstrated, Earle knows all the languages; he speaks heartland, garage, folk, and honky-tonk with equal aplomb. Boy knows bluegrass too, but an entire album of it deprives listeners of experiencing his full range in all its rugged glory. The Mountain feels more like a capable aside than a genius revelation. More like The Mound.