When word started going around the offices of Warner Bros. Records last year that Steve Earle was about to make a bluegrass record, an executive called Earle’s manager with a message.
Although he works in Nashville, Earle has always been too musically promiscuous to be classified as country. He’s more of a serial songwriter whose infatuations run from classic pedal-steel weepers to fuzz-rock stomps and wild Irish reels – sometimes on a single album. His records could be counted on to sell about 100,000 copies – not heroic, but very solid. A bluegrass record with sales of 100,000, on the other hand, would be considered a blockbuster hit. In commercial terms, bluegrass is one of the most marginal genres in American music, right up there with labor-protest ballads and Boy Scout campfire songs. And so the message that the executive had for Earle was simple: Don’t make this record. Gangsta rap may have made the Warner Bros. suits a little nervous, but the prospect of Steve Earle going into a studio with a banjo, a fiddle, and a mandolin had them terrified.
Earle’s response was simple, too: He dynamited his pact with Warner Bros. and walked away. That fateful bluegrass record, The Mountain, has just been released on his own E-Squared label, and it is now clearer than ever that since leaving drugs and alcohol behind a few years ago, Earle has matured into a major American musician at the top of his form. The traditional arrangements show off Earle’s skill for crafting a new tune – all fourteen tracks are originals – and making it sound like a lost classic that has just been rediscovered.
Earle comes to Town Hall on March 20 with the Del McCoury Band, which collaborated on the record and is generally considered the preeminent bluegrass outfit. On the phone from Nashville, Earle explains that the show will follow the acoustic conventions of bluegrass: one microphone, no drums. If that sounds sedate, you haven’t listened to The Mountain yet. Earle, McCoury, and the other musicians play the same instruments that came down from the Kentucky hills but drive them so hard that they out-rock nine tenths of the amplified Gibsons in the East Village. Besides numbers from The Mountain, Earle will perform some of his older songs, like “Copperhead Road” and “Hillbilly Highway,” which have been recast as bluegrass tunes. “It works great,” he says. “This music has been a component of my music from the very beginning. A lot of my songs translate effortlessly to these instruments.” One that he didn’t try to translate is “NYC,” a rock song from his last album that expresses some ambivalence about the city. “I love New York, but I’ve only just got comfortable with it again,” he says. “There’s a lot of great cities, like L.A. and Amsterdam and New York, that I kind of missed for a lot of years because I was preoccupied with the fact that there was more heroin than average available there.”
Earle nearly missed out on a lot more than New York. His 1986 debut, Guitar Town (MCA), reached No. 1 on the country charts, raising hopes that his high-octane back-to-basics style would light a fire hot enough to incinerate all the crud clogging Nashville’s sluggish motor. But as he grew famous, it became clear that Earle’s greatest passion was for burning himself. His survival, like Keith Richards’s, defies the rules of probability, medicine, and common sense. Earle first tried heroin at the age of 13. Over the years, the drug went from hobby to full-time job. He dropped out of Music Row and began hanging out in south Nashville’s black ghetto. Alcohol had always been a component of his self-medicating regimen; now he added crack cocaine. When his ATM wouldn’t give him cash, he bartered for drugs with his motorcycles, or his guitars. The instruments meant nothing anyway; for four years, he didn’t write a single song. MCA dropped him in 1991, but by that time Earle had already turned himself into a worthless commodity.
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.