Buying Into Bluegrass

To the editor:

Bravo to Peter Margasak for getting it exactly right about Steve Earle with the Del McCoury Band (April 2). He’s correct: this is a marriage of musical convenience and has all the strengths and weaknesses of any such project.

If Steve Earle were a more sensitive guy, he would just do the songwriting and singing and leave the playing to McCoury’s band, which is indeed one of the superlative units in bluegrass. It ought to be–Del has only been around since the early 1960s and came up himself as the guitarist and lead singer in Bill Monroe’s band. His sons, Ronnie and Rob, have literally been around the music all their lives, surrounded by its greatest players. Ronnie’s evocation of Monroe’s mandolin style, in particular, is deep, humbling, even scary at times.

The point is that bluegrass, as Margasak points out, has a dynamic language all its own. You can’t just pick up an acoustic guitar, write bluegrass-rhythm songs, and play it. Earle’s basic ham-fisted rhythm guitar pretty much manages to obliterate Del’s powerful, subtle, streamlined playing, itself deeply rooted in the tradition and learned firsthand from the master.

Nor does it do to write songs on “bluegrass” themes–coal mining, lost love, loneliness, etc. It’s been done before. Earle’s stated ambition to write “just one” song that becomes a bluegrass standard at festivals around the country after he’s gone is sheer egotism. Sorry, Steve, it doesn’t work that way. Like anybody else, bluegrass people get their songs from anywhere, as long as they’re good songs. Who first wrote or recorded them, in whatever style, doesn’t matter. That’s how traditional music works, as opposed to pop music. What does matter is whether the song is good and has lasting value. And the stuff on The Mountain is about as original and creative as its title. It’s not bad, it’s just not that great. And it will not last.

For the Del McCoury Band, touring with Earle is a chance to expose what they do to a different kind of audience. Hopefully at least some of these people will then go out and buy Del McCoury albums, the ones without Steve, and hear what they can really do. And no doubt the medium-sized venues (and revenues) are a welcome change from the normal, year-in, year-out routine of medium-to-large bluegrass festivals.

For Steve Earle, touring with Del McCoury is a chance to use his commercial clout with the rock audience to play with legends and virtuosos of a folk musical form. Bluegrass people would die to jam it up regularly with guys like Del and his boys, but not many of them can afford, literally, to buy into that experience.

It’s all about selling records. Let’s hope the Del McCoury Band manages to do some more of that, thanks to this tour. If Steve Earle can be credited with that, then he ought to be. But it ain’t because of his own music.

Gus Friedlander

Old Town School of Folk Music