Then, as if the trough he had crawled into weren't deep enough, he parlayed his major drug problem into a major legal problem. Annoyed by his failure to show up for a hearing on a crack-possession charge, a judge sentenced him to eleven months in jail. Earle would later work out a deal that combined jail time and rehab. That's when he quit heroin -- cold turkey.
Earle wasn't the first country star to abuse drugs, nor was he the first to land behind bars. Nevertheless, when he returned to civilian life, Nashville didn't exactly kill the fatted calf for him. But one of country music's founding fathers did go out of his way to show his support, and in doing so he nudged Earle toward bluegrass music. The Mountain was born, Earle says now, during a concert in December 1995, his first appearance in Nashville after getting out of jail. In the middle of his set, Bill Monroe, the legendary elder statesman of bluegrass, unexpectedly walked out onstage. He sang five songs before he left.
Earle, of course, was stunned. He never exactly knew why he had been granted that honor until Monroe's funeral in 1996, when a friend of Monroe's explained. "When Hank Williams got fired from the Grand Ole Opry, he went down to Ryman Auditorium," Earle recalls Monroe's friend saying. "Roy Acuff decided they weren't gonna let him in. The only person from the Opry who went down to see him was Bill Monroe. Now, Bill had more problems getting along with Hank than anybody, but he thought that what happened to him was unfair."
Earle continues, "Bill didn't know anything about my music. What he knew about me was what happened to me, or what I did to myself. It was really public. When they dragged me out in my orange suit to go to jail, it was on TV down here. Bill had been here a long time, and he knew there was different rules for different people about how hard their hard times get looked at by the media. For some reason the gloves were off for me. And that was the reason he did what he did."
Earle had been planning an acoustic album for some time. After Monroe's gesture, it was probably inevitable that it would shape up as a bluegrass record. In his liner notes, Earle writes that The Mountain is "my interpretation, to the best of my ability and with all of my heart, of the music that Bill Monroe invented."
"He thought that there was a dignity to this music," Earle says now. "He was the first musician in the Grand Ole Opry to wear a coat and tie instead of a costume. I'm wearing a suit on this tour, out of respect for Bill." A suit? "Yeah, well, I was in a lot of trouble with the law for a couple of years, so I have a lot of suits. I just have to train myself not to stand up every time somebody speaks to me."
What similarity does this sober man who wears suits bear to the rebellious, out-of-control punk who tried to obliterate himself in the slums of south Nashville? There is one thing: He seems to abhor any career path that verges on the linear. "This isn't my last bluegrass album," he tells anyone who will listen. Now, that's rebellious.