Steve Earle & the Del McCoury Band – Bring the Family
“The old write memoirs, the young do resumes. In midlife we keep a kind of diary that always begins with a discussion of the weather. The present is where we live, equidistant from our birth and death….We see our history and future clearly. We sleep well, dream in all tenses, wake ready and able.”
— Tom Lynch
The Undertaking: Life Studies From The Dismal Trade
(W.W. Norton & Co., 1997)
In the new pictures Steve Earle is wearing a dark, crisp, pin-striped suit, but that’s merely a gesture of respect. He’s changed, but not that much, not that way. The Del McCoury Band, who have become Earle’s most recent collaborators, wear their suits with practiced ease, and it is to them — and to the tradition they so elegantly represent — Earle wishes to show deference.
That the Del McCoury Band is not a household name speaks to the shadow that obscures most bluegrass. They are widely celebrated within that small world. The senior McCoury spent a year apprenticing with Bill Monroe back in the fallow days of 1963, began leading his own group in 1967, and has in the past decade or so — no longer obliged to work part-time in the Pennsylvania woods to support his family — led the finest bluegrass band working. Collectively and individually, these musicians — Del McCoury (lead vocals, guitar), sons Ronnie McCoury (mandolin, lead vocals) and Rob McCoury (banjo), and Jason Carter (fiddle) and Mike Bub (bass) — have won virtually every award the International Bluegrass Music Association offers.
That Earle should choose to make a record with the Del McCoury Band ought not come as a surprise. They have been together before: in the studio playing “I Still Carry You Around” on Earle’s 1997 album El Corazon; onstage one night in September 1997 at the Station Inn in Nashville; recording “Virginia Way/Shenandoah Breakdown” on the V-Roys’ latest, All About Town, co-produced by Earle and released on the label he co-owns (E-Squared). They are joined together now on The Mountain, a gorgeous album of new Steve Earle songs that has been brewing since he first moved to Nashville from San Antonio in 1974.
Be certain of this: The Mountain is not a marriage of convenience, but a blessing. And of this: The Mountain rocks.
Steve Earle will turn 44 a few days after our January interview. If that is a different kind of 44 than he is accustomed to writing about, he is at least able to study the matter unloaded, and smiling. For his part, Del McCoury turned 60 on February 1, a matter celebrated by the release of The Family on Ceili Music, Ricky Skaggs’ new imprint.
There lingers the impression, however misguided, that popular music is the semi-exclusive province of the young; it is often presumed that a musician’s best work is consummated during the first fire of youth. And it is the loss of youth we fear most. Western culture is bitterly reconciled to the cruel arrival of old age, and feverishly builds soft furniture against that day. In the middle one begins to pay or profit from the choices of callow youth, the knees announce changing weather, and potential is no longer something you possess, but an attribute you have failed to live up to. We are never — ever — satisfied. Least of all Steve Earle, though he comes closer now.
No wonder. The Mountain is part of an extraordinary creative spurt, including a collection of short stories Earle is readying for publication, and it is quite consciously framed by the songwriter’s growing desire to reconstruct his own legacy. “My primary motive in writing these songs was both selfish and ambitious — immortality,” Earle writes in the liner notes. “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 [Monroe] out of this world. Well, we’ll see.”
A boy’s memory opens The Mountain, and if one hears in “Texas Eagle” a distant echo of Earle’s friend, Guy Clark, so much the better: “My Granddaddy was a railroad man/When I was young he took me by the hand/Dragged me to the station at the break of dawn/Said ‘boy I got to show you somethin’ ‘fore it’s gone.'” The disc closes with “Pilgrim”, composed in honor of the late bass player Roy Huskey Jr. and performed with a large chorus of Huskey’s friends. Between lie a dozen more songs filled with the rare joy of fresh purpose, most notably a duet with Iris DeMent titled “I’m Still In Love With You” that rivals any of the classic early ’60s duets to have come from Nashville. Earle is perhaps proudest of “Yours Forever Blue”, his homage to Jimmy Martin, the most rock ‘n’ roll of the early bluegrass singers.
And for all the memories, the Steve Earle one meets across his desk is smiling, relaxed, at ease, and at last completely in control of his own work.
“I’m making the best records of my career,” Earle says, leaning forward, and there’s no bombast there. He is. He is also co-producing fine records (Cheri Knight, V-Roys, Bap Kennedy, 6 String Drag), and releasing them through the label he shares with Jack Emerson. Our interview took place a few days before Universal announced substantial staff and roster prunings in the continuing consolidation of the recording industry, and a few months after Earle and Emerson extricated E-Squared from a deal with Warner Bros. (one of Universal’s major competitors).
In short, Earle is putting his money where his mouth is. E-Squared’s offices are a little smaller than before, and they expect to release fewer albums, but those are the kinds of compromises he is willing to make. “The whole idea of operating an independent label with a major label’s money is faulty,” Earle argues. Then chuckles. “But it wasn’t that faulty because it got us going.”
Other compromises he will no longer countenance. “It took a me a long time to make Train A Comin’,” Earle says. “I wanted to make that record years before I made it, and never could. MCA didn’t want that record, so I wasn’t able to make it, and I decided I’d never be in that position again. And the main way I’ve avoided that is all bluff. You know, taking advantage of the fact that some people are scared of me, just being intimidating.
“And I don’t — it bothers me, it hurts my feelings sometimes that people are scared of me. But I finally gave up a few years ago and just decided, well, fuck, if some people in the business world are scared of me, it’s perfectly all right.” He laughs and Del nods, “Yeah.”
“I’m really not that bad of a guy,” Earle continues. “The longer I’m clean…you know, I don’t have to go down to the Lower East Side anymore, to cop, I don’t really have that much reason to intimidate anybody anymore. It was a matter of survival at one point in time.”
In some ways, it still is. “Basically,” Earle says, “it got down to Warner telling me I couldn’t make a bluegrass record. My attitude was, what part of fuck you do you not understand? Fuck, or you?”
It is, of course, slightly more complicated than that. E-Squared’s deal with Warner Bros. came to involve the V-Roys’ second album, and there was a large sum of money Earle was due, signed as an artist in a separate deal, upon delivery of The Mountain, and doubtless other issues best addressed by lawyers.
At the time of the V-Roys’ release last fall, Warner Bros. spokesperson Bob Merlis insisted Earle’s desire to cut a bluegrass record was not the issue. “When this deal started to change, we didn’t know what his next album was,” Merlis said. “So that’s after the fact, ex post facto logic. At the time that E-Squared and Steve and Jack started to express concern about it, and Warner Bros. responded, this wasn’t expressed by either party. Whatever Steve Earle does is of merit, irrespective of the genre. We know he’s a wide-ranging guy, that wouldn’t surprise us.”
In the end it probably doesn’t matter, except to the suits.
“I can sell 100,000 records, any record I release,” Earle says. (SoundScan figures for his last three albums more than support this.) “That’s what the real Steve Earle fan base is in the States. I’ve sold more, but I make records for me and those 100,000 people who buy every record. Those 100,000 people I don’t think are going to have a problem with this record, at all.”
Hit bluegrass albums sell in the tens of thousands, so the association with Earle can’t help but introduce the McCoury Band to a new, broader audience. But they, too, have taken a kind of risk with their new release. For the second time, Del has left the safe haven of Rounder Records. This time, he’s signed with Ricky Skaggs’ new label, Ceili. (Ronnie still owes Rounder a second solo album, on which he is presently working.)
“I didn’t think I’d go with him,” Del says. “Then we met again, and they had a lot of good ideas, things I’d never had a chance to do at Rounder, and so, I thought, well, I’ll gamble. I told them, I said, ‘You know, Mama never would let me gamble, and here I am 60, I’m goin’ gamble.’ So that’s what I did. They’re a lot freer with their money, I can tell you.”
Like desperadoes waiting for a train — that is, like two men waiting with practiced ease for their proper work to resume — Steve Earle and Del McCoury sit patiently for interviews in Earle’s seldom-used E-Squared office. Through the walls one can sometimes hear Steve’s teenage son, Justin, playing his father’s guitar, struggling with the writing of songs when he’s meant to be interning (read: answering phones) at the label. Earle toys at his desk with a gold lighter for his pipe, an accouterment to his latest plan to quit cigarettes. McCoury sprawls easily from a chair in the corner, his long legs in freshly pressed jeans, hair perfect, manner courtly. Words come in torrents from Earle, and in slow drops from McCoury.
An unlikely pair, perhaps. And perhaps not.
“Bluegrass is the original alternative country music,” Earle begins, expanding upon a catechism he’s been preaching the last couple years, refining a story he will tell throughout the press for this album. “When I moved [to Nashville] in 1974, I was Guy Clark’s bass player and part of a little clique of Texas songwriters. I came to town with basically a verbal letter of introduction from Townes Van Zandt, and met Guy Clark. I went right into a little scene; we hung out with bluegrass players. Those were the only other bohemians in town.
“People like Vassar [Clements] and Norman Blake….Buck White and his daughters lived next door to Guy for several years; Guy used to rent a house from Mickey Newbury. And then there was a banjo player called Jack Hicks who used to play with Buck and those guys. Skaggs was in that band for a while, at the very end of it. Jerry Douglas was in that band, right after he left J.D. Crowe. And so I knew some of these people for years and years.
“Sam Bush and Douglas and — who else? — Mark O’Connor, and Edgar Meyer used to have a band with Bela [Fleck], called Telluride. And that was the band that was used on ‘Nothing But A Child’ on Copperhead Road.” (This group cut an album called The Telluride Sessions under the name Strength In Numbers, but appear on Copperhead Road billed as Telluride.)
Copperhead Road represented many kinds of benchmarks for Earle. Though his debut, Guitar Town, went to #1 on the country charts and cemented his reputation as both songwriter and critic’s darling, it is for Copperhead Road that he is best remembered by any kind of mass audience. By then, Earle had moved from MCA-Nashville to Uni, a West Coast affiliate of MCA, and at 600,000-odd units moved, it remains his only gold album in the United States. (Canada has been markedly more supportive.)
The album’s title track is a fierce, proud song, and a concise summary of Earle’s rebel aesthetic: to quote NWA, “Fuck tha police.” But more than the drug-affirming lyrics, more than Earle’s snarling vocals, it is the sound of his ringing mandolin chords that anchors “Copperhead Road” firmly in the blue-collar voice of backroads America, and makes the song a kind of postscript to Lynyrd Skynyrd.
It can’t be an accident that those same chords briefly echo in the introduction to a track on The Mountain called “Harlan Man”, every bit as fiercely proud, but transformed. The words “Just as long as I’m able I won’t give in” are those of a rebel, yes, but of a working rebel — not of a loner, but of a union loyalist.
Del McCoury’s big break came, quite by accident, in 1963, though it took a few decades for the weight of the thing to accumulate. McCoury was born in Bakersville, North Carolina; his family relocated to Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, in the early 1940s. Inspired by Earl Scruggs, young Delano Floyd McCoury took up the banjo and began playing, first with Keith Daniels and the Blue Ridge Ramblers, then around Baltimore with Jack Cooke’s Virginia Mountain Boys.
“We played in bars, you know, but I didn’t know the difference,” he chuckles. “I thought, ‘Man, this is big-time: bars.’ So I was a banjo player, and Monroe [both McCoury and Earle pronounce the founder of bluegrass’s name with an accent on the first syllable] comes through there. It might have been December, November, and Monroe just walked right in, sat down there.
“He wanted Jack to follow him up to New York City to play, I think, one date up there. And he didn’t have a guitar player, or a banjo player. So they took me along. And then I sung baritone with him, that night, and he offered me a job picking.
“I waited about a month before I came down here [to Nashville]. It just so happened that Bill Keith came, it must’ve been the same day.” Bill Keith was also a pretty fair banjo picker, and so McCoury found his audition to be a bit of a shock.
“We went up in the Nashville Life & Accident Insurance Building next door [to the hotel where both men were staying], and Monroe said, ‘I want you to audition to play guitar and sing lead.’ And I thought, ‘Man, this is weird.’ I was a tenor singer, actually, before, and I’d sung all the parts. So I played the guitar, and this deal, it kind of riles you, you don’t know what’s happening. He’d just say, ‘You do this and you do this,’ and it was like you’d done it all your life, but I’d never done it in my life before.” Thirty-six years later, he still tells the story full of wonder.
“He told me that day, ‘Now, I’m going to use you on guitar singing lead, and if you work out, in two weeks I’ll get you in the union.” McCoury gives a short laugh. “I didn’t know if I wanted this or not, but I probably didn’t have enough money to get back home. And that’s the way it worked out: He got me in the union, and used Bill on the banjo. He told me back then, ‘Now, you’ll like this better.’ In the end I found out he’s right; I do like it better.”
McCoury toured with Monroe during one of bluegrass’s low spots. The folk boom of the late ’50s and early ’60s had helped to cushion the impact of Elvis Presley’s new rock ‘n’ roll, but by 1963 that was beginning to fade. Even Monroe was having a hard time keeping a band together, and though today McCoury laughs ruefully and says “I wish I knew” when asked why he quit, it made plenty of sense at the time.
“I started work in February of ’63, and I quit in the first part of February of ’64,” he says. McCoury made one session with Monroe, in January 1964. “We ran out of fiddle players,” he says. “Kenny Baker quit, that was his first time to quit. Then Keith quit, and the band just didn’t sound good anymore. And I guess I was kinda disheartened, too, because we were just pickin’ up people on the road.”
McCoury went home to Pennsylvania for Christmas and returned with fiddler Billy Baker. Baker joined Monroe’s band, then convinced McCoury to quit with him and head to California to work for automotive impresario Cal Worthington’s Golden State Boys. McCoury went back to Pennsylvania first and got married, then headed off to California for three months.
He and Baker returned home and played together in the Shady Valley Boys before McCoury formed his own band, the Dixie Pals, in 1967. McCoury worked, raised a family, and toured when he could. Twenty years later, his two sons now joining him onstage, he restyled the ensemble as the Del McCoury Band. He won his first IBMA award two years after. The band’s records are mostly in print, and all worth finding.
The worlds of the Del McCoury Band and Steve Earle first began to converge in 1991. “Ken Irwin [Rounder Records co-owner and producer of the label’s bluegrass acts] called me when I was terrorizing Los Angeles,” Earle says. “I was living in Larchmont Village. The wheels were already starting to come off with me in a pretty big way, but one of the little flashes of light in there was this call.”
Irwin had spotted “If You Need A Fool” (one of the songs Earle cut on a string of singles for Epic in the early ’80s that did nothing until they were repackaged after Guitar Town), and thought it would suit the McCourys. “They were putting together what turned out to be arguably one of the very best bluegrass records ever made, Blue Side Of Town,” continues Earle. “There’s three songs right in a row on side one, all written by people I kind of came up with, and came up under: There’s my song, a David Olney song, and a Steve Young song.
“Ken called me and asked me to write another verse, which I did, and I called him back two hours later.” That, as Ronnie McCoury notes, was the last thing Earle wrote for four years. (It is also a song Phish sometimes covers in concert.) Earle finally met the McCoury clan at a Nashville show in 1995, with Monroe also in the audience. By that point, Earle was recording and touring with a trio of bluegrass notables — Peter Rowan, Norman Blake and Roy Huskey Jr., otherwise known as the Train Band, after Earle’s comeback album Train A Comin’.
“Most of what I know about this music I learned from Peter Rowan,” Earle acknowledges. “We traveled a lot of miles together, I had access to him, and Pete’s a good teacher. I had to change the way I sing and the way I play guitar to do this. I probably have to make more adjustments than Del does, because I was the one making my first bluegrass record. I actually wear my guitar higher when I play this music,” and he pantomimes the position, showing how the change in posture alters his voice slightly.
Earle has also spent many free Tuesday nights at the Station Inn in Nashville, sitting in with a semi-impromptu aggregation known as the Sidemen. Fronted by Terry Eldridge of the Osborne Brothers and typically anchored by Mike Bub, the Sidemen is as close as the public can get to an informal picking session. Some nights it’s transcendent, sometimes the Vandy kids drown out the music clattering $5 pitchers.
“Terry Eldridge is the laziest singer in bluegrass,” Earle laughs. “You get down there about ten o’clock, and you can sit in a lot.” (Note to would-be volunteers: It helps if you’re Steve Earle.)
The Mountain was co-produced by the Twangtrust (Earle and Ray Kennedy, who co-own Room & Board Studio in Nashville) and Ronnie McCoury. “Steve writes all the songs, and I kind of helped him arrange them, maybe straightened some of his tunes out if he needed any help,” Ronnie says. “Didn’t have to change any melodies or anything like that, but he just kind of wanted me there because…Ray had never recorded a bluegrass band, and, uh, they’re rock and rollers. So I was just there to help them get some sounds on some instruments.”
Live, the McCoury Band play in classic fashion, clustered around a single microphone, soloists doing a constant ballet that uses the distance from that central mike to orchestrate the music’s dynamics. “We didn’t do it around one mike, but we did it closer to that than most people do,” Earle says, and starts laughing. “Ray set up the most ungodly array of microphones I’ve ever seen in my life. We weeded some of ’em out as we discovered in the first couple day’s sessions that we weren’t really using them. But every instrument had a couple of mikes on it so Ray could go back and forth and see which one sounded best for the song.”
“It looked like something from a Frankenstein movie,” Ronnie laughs, “where you get ready for the lightning bolts to hit.”
“We had sort of a semi-circle of microphones on one side of the room,” Earle continues, “and Del and the boys were over there, and I was facing them on the other side. That worked better for us because I was the one who knew the songs cold, and that way they were facing me and I could show ’em where they were going.”
The Mountain was cut in sessions of three and five days. The McCoury Band then turned around and recorded The Family on a slightly longer schedule (with dobro master Jerry Douglas producing, and Ronnie once again assisting and earning a co-producer credit). “When we did Steve’s record, we just all played in one room, which is a great way to do it, and if you messed up, you messed up, there’s no fixing it,” Ronnie says. “I like to say it has some warts on it, but it’s soulful, it’s raw bluegrass, what I really like. Jerry was producing our record, and some of the tunes we weren’t familiar with, so we had to be more isolated.”
Though The Family may have been slightly rushed, it will stand quite comfortably with the McCoury Band’s other output. Two of the best songs (“The Look Of A Perfect Diamond” and “50/50 Chance”) come from Del’s pen, though he is at best a reluctant writer these days. “I don’t write that often,” he says. “Back in the ’80s and ’70s, and the late ’60s, I wrote quite a few, and recorded most of ’em. Since I moved down here [in 1992], I haven’t written at all, hardly.”
“You’re on the road all the time,” Earle notes.
“Of course you are, too,” McCoury answers. “The difference is, I have to be by myself [to write]. Because anything’ll distract me, then I’ll just throw it in the trash.”
The rest of the songs come from writers young (Ronnie McCoury) and old (Jimmy Martin’s “Cryin’ Heart Blues”), including an oddly unironic reading of John Sebastian’s “Nashville Cats”. But the best cut, “Backslidin’ Blues”, a honky-tonk classic in bluegrass form, comes from the pen of Guy Clark’s friend Verlon Thompson, co-written with Billy Smith.
Earle and the Del McCoury Band will tour the eastern U.S. in March, beginning with a weeklong stand at the Station Inn, where seats in the back row came from the Flatt & Scruggs tour bus. They hit Europe in May, and will presumably visit the West Coast after that.
They will wear suits, and play acoustic instruments, and some may have trouble seeing the rebellion of rock in their music. But the music will soar, and the songs will be harder and hungrier than anything on the radio. And the songs will last.
See, it’s not about remaining forever young. Rather, to borrow from Mike Ireland, it’s about learning how to live.
No Depression co-editor Grant Alden, who will turn 40 in April, is pleased to report that he never gambles on sporting events.