As with so many other pursuits, the only way to become proficient at bluegrass music is to immerse yourself in it.
So when country-rock songwriter Steve Earle decided he was going to do an entire album of bluegrass songs -- a project that became the recently released CD The Mountain
(RealAudio excerpt of title track) -- that's what he did.
He played every Tuesday at Nashville's Station Inn for a year, maybe 18 months. On the road, he took the Sex Pistols and Rolling Stones out of his CD case and replaced them with artists such as the Kentucky Colonels and Jimmy Martin. Week after week, he'd go down to the club and sit in for the second set with a band known as the Sidemen.
And he learned.
"I learned that I need to wear my guitar about three inches higher," Earle said recently, adding a slight laugh to his familiar gritty twang. "It's the truth. It's part of singing and playing at the same time. I don't know how to explain it, but it works."
Earle fans will certainly recognize the rough-hewn populism that runs through The Mountain. What may be less familiar is the earthy musical tapestry backing the songs. The 44-year-old singer/guitarist recorded the album with the Del McCoury Band -- called by many people the greatest bluegrass band working today -- who share equal billing with Earle on the 14-song disc.
"Bluegrass has one thing in common with be-bop, and that is that it's very much about f---in' with time," Earle said about the complex genre, defined in part by the acoustic sounds of mandolins and banjos and the distinctive harmonizing of its singers.
"But it's not about math," he cautioned. "It's strictly emotional and the telepathic relationship that players develop from playing with each other every night."
To McCoury, Earle is an ideal bluegrass artist, even though Earle cut his teeth with country-rock efforts such as Guitar Town (1986) and Copperhead Road (1988). After several run-ins with the law for a drug problem he eventually kicked, Earle came back with a series of critically acclaimed albums, including El Corazon (1997).
"Any song is a good bluegrass song, you know?" McCoury, 69, said in a gentle voice. "Steve being a good songwriter and a good guitar player, it was just natural for him to do that. You could do the songs he wrote for this bluegrass album in any style, but they just suit bluegrass."
McCoury would know. Back in the 1960s, he sang and played guitar with the legendary Bill Monroe, the mandolin player who single-handedly invented bluegrass in the 1940s. Like many of the players who apprenticed under Monroe, McCoury eventually left to form several of his own groups. The Del McCoury Band features his sons Ronnie (mandolin) -- who did much of the arranging for The Mountain -- and Rob (banjo), along with Jason Carter (fiddle) and Mike Bub (bass). They just released their own album called The Family.
As one might expect, much of The Mountain focuses on themes of days gone by. The giddy
(RealAudio excerpt), for instance, recounts Earle's memories of riding the railroad with his grandfather and hitchhiking back home.
"Every word of that [song] is true," said Earle, who was born in Virginia but grew up in Texas. "When you're five years old, trains are so huge. My granddad worked for Railroad Express. He knew all the conductors, because the trains would come into Jacksonville and he would put packages on the trains. He really sensed that passenger trains were going away. So we would literally ride just 30 miles down the road. It was one of the things we did for fun."
The title song and "Harlan Man," meanwhile, describe the Appalachian region from different vantage points in this century.
"It's about a way of life disappearing," Earle said. "It was never a good way of life -- but now there's no way of life at all. 'Harlan Man' and 'The Mountain' were conceived around the same character, one when he's younger and one when he's a very old man, who's lived long enough to see the entire way of life in his part of the world disappear."
Fans who go to watch Earle and McCoury perform their songs live will find the antithesis of a modern, high-tech rock or country show. There are no monitors for the bandmembers to hear themselves, nor are their instruments connected to the sound system. In the center of the stage stands a single mic around which everyone gathers.
To McCoury, the simple style means that there's no soundman running the show who might screw up his band's performance. Earle, who picked up the technique from McCoury and insisted on playing that way on their tour, said it's the best way to play bluegrass, which he calls the "original alternative country."
"It makes you listen to everybody else, and it makes you make way for other players and play with them," he said. "And it's much more exciting to watch. When you give everyone their own microphone, you nail everyone's feet to the floor, and it makes bluegrass extremely one-dimensional."