Saturday, February 10, 2018

Steve Earle's Song By Song Description of The Mountain

After spending a few years removed from it, I had the urge to listen to Bluegrass music this week.  The first album I turned to was The Mountain, Steve Earle's 1999 masterpiece that featured the Del McCoury Band as his backing band.  As I listened to it I realized that for me, this is my all-time favorite bluegrass CD.

Other top contenders for favorite bluegrass album include Manzanita by Tony Rice, Hot Rize's self-titled first album, Old and In The Way's self-titled first album, and Aero-Plain by John Hartford.  I could go on, but you can tell I'm not exactly a purist.  The Mountain has a slight edge up on all of these for me.

Here are some liner notes and a track by track description of The Mountain written by Steve Earle.

Steve —
I wish I were as sure about anything as Bill Monroe was about everything.

Of course, Mr. Bill came by his self-assurance honestly.  He alone, as far as I know, could claim to have single-handedly invented an American art form.  We are a "democratic" society, don't you know, where musical idioms are normally arrived at by committee.  The great Bob Wills merelydefined western swing at the helm of the Texas Playboys, after serving apprenticeships with Milton Brown's Brownies and the Lightcrust Doughboys.  The race to invent rock and roll ended in a dead heat between two outfits, one working in Memphis (Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black) the other in Chicago (Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Johnny Johnson, Jasper Thomas and Jerome Green).  Not that "the Father of the Bluegrass Music" didn't have influences.  There was of course his uncle, Penn Vandiver, and the other local musicians he grew up listening to in Kentucky as well as people he heard on records.  I find it hard to believe that Mr. Bill never heard the late, great blues mandolin player from Mississippi, Yank Rachele.  In any case, when Bill Monroe switched from guitar to mandolin he decided that he was going to play his newlyadopted instrument like no one else had ever played it before — and he did.

This is my interpretation, to the best of my ability and with all of my heart (as well as the assistance of the best bluegrass band working today) of the music that Bill Monroe invented.  Some of it I think he would have approved of ("why that's a fine number").  Some of it probablyhas him turning over in his grave ("That there ain't no part of nothin' ").  Of course that's all speculation.  I do know this — Mr. Bill was very kind to me whenever we met during what turned out to be the last few years of his life.  In December of 1995 he honored me by walking out, uninvited, on to the stage of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center twenty minutes into my show and remaining to sing five or six songs with Peter Rowan, Roy Huskey, Jr., Norman Blake and myself.  It was the biggest thrill of my life.  When I look back now, I believe this record was reallyborn that night.

My primary motive in writing these songs was both selfish and ambitious — immortality.  I wanted to write just one song that would be performed by at least one band at every bluegrass festival in the world long after I have followed Mr. Bill out of this world.  Well, we'll see.

The Mountain:  track by track
I've been asked to sort of breakdown where the bodies are buried on these songs, basically because I made the mistake of doing it before and everyone thought it was cute...

Texas Eagle:  Every single word of this song is true.

Yours Forever Blue:  Every other word in this song is not.  My Jimmy Martin impression.

Carrie Brown:  This song went through several rewrites and three different melodies.  It was important to me to include at least one real-live-bad-tooth-hillbillymurder ballad on this record.

I'm Still In Love With You:  Merle Haggard says Iris DeMent is one of the "best damn singers" he's ever heard. I agree.  She's also one of the best songwriters I know.  I was standing in the audience at a festival in Australia last year listening to Iris sing and I decided right then and there I was going to write something for us to sing together.  My obsessions are becoming more practical in my old age.

The Graveyard Shift:  We had to have a blues.  That's what the "blue" in bluegrass is all about.

Harlan Man / The Mountain:  These two songs were conceived as a kind of suite - one set in the past and one in the present.  Harlan Man (past) itself is a rock song on bluegrass instruments.  The Mountain is one of the best songs I've ever written.

Outlaw's Honeymoon:  I wrote this tune a couple of years ago for a great film called Niagara, Niagara.  Then the producers said they would have to have the publishing on the song and I told them to kiss my Texas ass.  I recorded a solo version of it for El Corazón which sucked.  It's finallyfound a home here, I think.

Connemara Breakdown:  A little mandolin tune I made up.  Basically, bluegrass fantasy camp.

Leroy's Dustbowl Blues:  Your basic pinko folk song at bluegrass velocity.  Gene Wooten digs into that dobro and Del peels the paint off the walls — god, I love my job.

Dixieland:  I stole this character from the late Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, the best civil war novel I've ever read.
Paddy on the Beat:  Do you detect an Irish theme developing?  Oh well, maybe the next acoustic record….

Long, Lonesome Highway Blues:  Wherever you go - there you are.

Pilgrim:  I wrote this the morning of Roy Huskey's funeral because I couldn't think of anything else to sing.  When we got everybody together to sing it and listened to the playback - all the girls cried.  Us men-folk all made mental notes to cry later.

One more thing.  This is not my last bluegrass record.  I make a lot of different kinds of records because I write a lot of different kinds of songs and I'm a writer, first and foremost.  As I get older and more set in my ways however, this format becomes more comfortable all the time.  More everyday, this is my favorite kind of music.

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