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(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

This distinctive sound -- inspired by the Blue Grass Boys, codified by Flatt and Scruggs, and developed by the Stanley Brothers and other bands -- began to be called bluegrass in the 1950s. Western swing, honky-tonk, and rockabilly were using drums and electrified instruments; some fans and artists insisted that unamplified instruments, gospel-style vocals, and ruralist lyrics made bluegrass the only true country music. Despite its appeal to traditionalists, however, by the early 1960s bluegrass was heard only rarely on country radio -- and then mainly as a novelty. Today's thriving bluegrass culture can be traced to the discovery of bluegrass in the late 1950s by collegiate folk revivalists, many of whom were first attracted by the excitement of Scruggs-style banjo. Jazz sophisticates appreciated bluegrass's virtuoso picking, and folk archaists endorsed its unamplified instrumentation and simple structures. Country music was an unattractively big business, and left-inclined folkies could see bluegrass as anti-commercial. Flatt and Scruggs had a success at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960; in 1962 they recorded a well-received live album at Carnegie Hall and brought bluegrass to the mainstream with their theme song for the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies.

In comparative obscurity, Bill Monroe had continued to develop as a musician, a composer, and a leader. His bands had slowly declined in quality, but his mandolin playing had, if anything, gained in sharpness and intelligence. When folkies searched beyond Flatt and Scruggs, they were rewarded by discovery of the Blue Grass Boys. Folklorists and urban folk musicians booked Monroe into colleges and folk clubs, publicized him, and helped to get his 1950s singles reissued in LP format. Monroe had bitterly resented the fame of Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers. Now he accepted and pursued a role as the father of a genre whose very existence he might have questioned as late as the early 1950s.

From the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, while many of his earlier competitors fell by the wayside, Monroe consolidated his position not only as the subculture's most energetic advocate but also as a teacher of younger bluegrass musicians, many of whom passed through his bands. Treating outsiders with reserve and young musicians with generosity suited Monroe's role as patriarch. His snow-white sideburns and general cragginess, and his high standards of musicianship, enhanced not only his aura of being the survivor of a bygone era but also his music's aura of being the purest fountain of country inspiration. Monroe repeatedly emphasized bluegrass's social value, its "honesty," its capacity for bringing people together and inspiring friendship. He was revered at bluegrass festivals all over the country. Rachel Liebling's documentary film High Lonesome (1991) purveyed the Monroe legend to the outside world; in Nashville, where Monroe lived and worked -- and where the music industry largely ignores classic bluegrass -- Bill Monroe is mentioned in tones of awe. He performed on Grand Ole Opry until shortly before he died.

IF bluegrass is a distillation of the fermenting mash that was hillbilly music in the 1930s and early 1940s, The Mountain recalls the pre-1945 Bill Monroe, who brought intensity to an eclectic form, not the iconic Monroe. Mixing songs in a variety of country traditions, The Mountainalso recalls early country bands such as the Carter Family, Mainer's Mountaineers, and Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers. The rawness of Earle's singing, instantly recognizable for its mixture of roughhousing and friendliness, both updates bluegrass with rock personality and returns it to the early days of country recording with high-spirited picking and singing.

After a fragment of studio tuning and Earle's motor-mouth back talk, the album opens with the insistent striking of a single guitar string until it arrives at a percussive crescendo where the rock-trained ear wants electric bass and drums; fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and string bass then launch "Texas Eagle." Earle's first sung phrase -- "My granddaddy was a railroad man" -- suggests that the trip will be fun. Long experience in achieving trenchancy through simplicity allows Earle to escape all the risks inherent in essaying "the train song," with its connotations of classic Americana, and to reinvent the subject even while letting it feel familiar. The musical setting of "Texas Eagle" is familiar too, but it benefits from an almost insidious charisma that is also characteristic of Earle's gifts. To a rocking, four-square beat the narrator's progress from childhood to adulthood is packed snugly into three six-line verses, each of which is followed, predictably enough, by an instrumental passage. Yet the tune has irresistible circular motion -- the train's to and from San Antonio, the narrator's away from and back to childhood. Earle prevents the shrewd choices at work in the structure of "Texas Eagle" from calling attention to themselves.

The Mountain is able to embrace the major styles and subjects of country music while seeming always unified and integrated. "Yours Forever Blue" is a twelve-bar boogie, more conventional than "Texas Eagle." "I'm Still in Love With You" is a honky-tonk slow dance with the fine singer Iris DeMent. There are rousing Irish pub music, many kinds of blues, saloon ragtime, Celtic dance, and a slow and moving hymn, "Pilgrim," that might as well be a camp-meeting chestnut like "Blessed Be the Name" or "We'll Camp a Little While in the Wilderness." American history, of which Earle seems to be a buff, is dramatized in "Dixieland" (based on Michael Shaara's Civil War novel The Killer Angels), a song that shares with Earle's earlier history songs an evocation of American rowdiness -- the "Damn all gentlemen" and "What care I for praise" attitude of Scots-Irish defiance (with close counterparts in blues and hip-hop) that Earle presents as a mixed blessing but an inevitability.

History also pervades the album's centerpiece, a two-song suite -- "Harlan Man" and "The Mountain" -- with a coal-mining theme. The first song connects the toughness of mining with the immovability that once characterized organized labor; its static, modal throb reminds us that rock music came as much from mountains and pine barrens as from Memphis. "The Mountain" disrupts and then extinguishes all the relentless bravado of "Harlan Man." The song is a stately waltz in which an old man looks back over his years as a miner and the destruction and abandonment by the coal companies of his mountain home, where he nevertheless insists on staying until he dies. There's not even a saving shred of nostalgia or pastoralism; this mountain is the ghost of a rural-industrial ghetto. On repeated hearings the narrator's clear-eyed description and his confession of eternal connection to a ruined place become irredeemably anguished.

The superb playing of the Del McCoury Band on all these tracks -- particularly Ronnie McCoury's mandolin playing, which is never less than fleet, firm, and tasteful -- is one reason for the absence of any jarring sense of eclecticism. The band subordinates virtuosity to ensemble drive, and in making only sparing use of the "high lonesome" vocal sound may remind the jaded how powerful that sound can be. (Del McCoury's tenor vocals on "Long, Lonesome Highway Blues" and "Carrie Brown" are likely to prick up some ears.) Much of the music classified as "contemporary folk," in which one might hope to find new songs and idiosyncratic vocals set to unamplified band music, employs electrification and drums. The Mountain may help to give music in the hillbilly tradition greater cachet, at least briefly, than it usually enjoys outside the thriving bluegrass subculture.

Groundbreaking though it may be, The Mountain does not lack parallels in recent roots music. A generation ago Emmylou Harris's Roses in the Snow brought country-rock listeners to bluegrass and helped to restore instrumental virtuosity to mainstream country. Harris's 1992 At the Ryman used a bluegrass-style band to cover country, pop, and folk songs by composers from Stephen Foster to Steve Earle. On the blues side Corey Harris has mixed solo guitar playing in which the instrument becomes a band of its own with hoarse, jagged brass figures -- reinventing a moment when country and city musics clashed and gave birth to modern pop.

Steve Earle himself would hardly claim to be unique. He has always given credit to his teachers, who include his fellow Texans Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, leaders in the 1960s and 1970s of an influential songwriting scene. He gathers up the forms that fed bluegrass, blues, country, and rock and gives them smart, rugged songwriting treatments that enliven rather than exploit or mummify them. It's possible to see Earle as having absorbed and surpassed the work of his teachers, including Bill Monroe.

The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.


William Hogeland has written about music for New York Press and Salon.

Illustration by Loren Long.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1999; Old-New Bluegrass - 99.10 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 4; page 94-98.