Steve Earle & the Del McCoury Band

at the Vic, March 25

By Peter Margasak

The first few times I listened to The Mountain, the new album Steve Earle recorded with the Del McCoury Band, I couldn’t stop thinking what poor use he’d made of the group he himself calls the “best bluegrass band working today.” Despite Earle’s declared love for bluegrass and his close identification with Texas country-rock bards like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, he’s always played far more rock than country: from his wonderfully bombastic 1988 breakthrough album, Copperhead Road, to his 1996 comeback anthem “Feel Alright,” his music consistently reveals his love for the real fist-pumping, roof-rattling stuff. And while the best rock and the best bluegrass do share a certain intensity, Earle’s never been much for subtlety; against the onslaught of overamplified modern music, on the other hand, bluegrass’s acoustic subtlety has become one of its greatest strengths.

Last week, when Earle performed at the Vic with McCoury’s virtuosic but restrained band–singer and guitarist Del; his sons, mandolinist Ronnie and banjoist Rob; fiddler Jason Carter; and bassist Mike Bub–this schism occasionally became very apparent. During “Dixieland,” a Pogues-ish tune from the new album, Earle let out a hearty whoop that seemed like a plea for the sort of cheap, instant kick in the ass only a rock band can deliver; he went ungratified. And when he played a handful of his best-known tunes by himself in the middle of the show, he bludgeoned the chords more than he strummed them, substituting sheer force for suitable accompaniment.

But by the end of the three-hour concert, throughout which the group huddled cooperatively around a single multidirectional mike, I’d come to think of the experiment as a success for Earle, if not entirely for McCoury and his band. For the most part Earle was able to lead the ensemble from within, and the McCoury gang did trade in some of its cool virtuosity for raw energy.

This isn’t the first time Earle has explored more traditional music. In 1995, after serving a brief sentence for crack possession, he cut the all-acoustic Train a Comin’ with guitarist Norman Blake, bassist Roy Huskey Jr., and mandolinist Peter Rowan–the progressive former Bill Monroe sideman whom Earle credits as his mentor in bluegrass basics. But Earle was more or less revisiting his own troubadour roots: he may have been surrounded by accomplished pickers, but he was hardly on unfamiliar turf. On The Mountain, penned mostly by Earle and arranged mostly by Ronnie McCoury, Earle admits that he was attempting 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 [Monroe] out of this world.” But his songs are still driven by his impulse to rock, and at times the McCoury band seems to be blandly vamping behind him. During the all-too-brief set the group played by itself at the Vic, the music took on a luxurious buoyancy that it never quite recaptured on the more driving collaborative numbers.

The phrase “high lonesome” has been applied so many times to bluegrass singing that it doesn’t mean much anymore, but when Del McCoury opens his yap the definition snaps right back into focus. When his band did Bill Monroe’s gospel gem “Get Down on Your Knees and Pray,” long a staple of its live sets, the gorgeous four-part harmonies sent shivers down my spine. Still, when Del sang with Earle on the new album’s “Carrie Brown,” he tapped into something much more urgent and natural. It wasn’t sublime, like “Get Down,” but there was an immediate, ragged glory in McCoury’s voice that I’d never heard there before.

Earle didn’t give as much as his counterparts, but he sure seemed to enjoy playing with them. He did his darnedest to get his fans to listen to the McCourys, but by three or four tunes into their set, many of Earle’s fans were talking loudly. Their attention was recaptured when Earle, solo, hauled out warhorses like “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied,” “Hillbilly Highway,” and “The Devil’s Right Hand,” to which they happily bellowed the words, even though Earle himself looked utterly bored. I don’t think Earle’s about to embark on a bluegrass career, but when he was playing with the McCoury band, he gave some of his most spirited performances since his first shows out of rehab.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Steve Early, right; Del McCoury, right; photos by David V. Kamba.