For a few years now, Steve Earle has threatened to abandon his electric neo-Woody Guthrie musical observations and retreat into the arms of Bill Monroe, bluegrass icon and progenitor of the “high lonesome” singing style. “Bluegrass is probably the only music I’m going to do from now on,” he told me in an interview in 1997. In the liner notes to The Mountain (E Squared), the singer-songwriter’s new album, and his first all-bluegrass outing (a team effort with the Del McCoury Band), Mr. Earle claims that Monroe was not only the father of bluegrass but that there is no mother . “He alone, as far as I know, could claim to have single-handedly invented an American art form,” he writes.
Eggheads like Greil Marcus tend to glorify the primitive Rousseauian nobility of Appalachian bluegrass culture which spawned the likes of Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Dock Boggs, the Carter Family and on and on. But the other thing to remember is that Appalachia is populated by Caucasians on the lowest rung of the social ladder–cruel and inbred and illiterate coal-miner alcoholics with child brides (celebrated in song!), and if novelist Cormac McCarthy is to be believed, a few necrophiliacs and cannibals as well.
Whew! Do I really believe that? Well, yes and no. There’s something eternally ugly about that backwoods hard life being glorified by cheerful banjos and mandolins, all plucking away like scurrying mice, forming rhythmic patterns that cultural historian Robert Cantwell has mapped as half a dozen permutations of bump a-dee a-dee a-dede . Even worse is the sonic limitation of plucked instruments. Banjos and mandolins are distant cousins of Japanese kotos and Turkish ouds. Brittle, brittle is their sound. What redeems bluegrass, and by extension Steve Earle’s new album, is the simple violin. Bowed instruments possess much greater resonance than plucked ones. Mr. Earle and the Del McCoury Band’s The Mountain contains several gorgeous songs, such as “Yours Forever Blue” and “The Graveyard Shift,” in which a violin sails above all those plucked bump a-dee a-dee a-dede ‘s creating a sublime conflict. The songs that lack prominent violin sometimes make the listener feel like Jed Clampett shuffling his feet, waiting for bubbling crude.
In his sensible musicological history, Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound (reprinted by Da Capo in 1992), Mr. Cantwell theorizes that the limited scope of plucked instruments was best suited for primitive recording qualities (i.e. mono), which flattened the sound, giving it a “melancholy” and “dreamlike” quality. “New recordings [of bluegrass],” he writes, “though often quaint, are … ultimately tedious: a few cuts will do you.” That is why last year’s Gillian Welch banjo and guitar record, Hell Among the Yearlings , sounded so good; it was recorded in mono to duplicate that old-timey sound. On first listen, Mr. Earle’s “modern” The Mountain has its moments, but a few cuts will do you.
On first listen, his lyrics disappoint as well. The songs paint all the usual suspects in the bluegrass milieu or concern themselves with antique Americana. On his 1997 release, El Corazon , Mr. Earle captured the cynical beginnings of Bill Clinton’s term in the song “Christmas in Washington.” On The Mountain we get the War Between the States and the Dust Bowl. No Hillary. No Vince Foster. Mr. Earle also told me in that earlier interview that he was writing a bluegrass song about his prison experience called “I Don’t Look Good in Orange.” Nothing like that turns up on this album. Just songs about coal miners (… and truck drivers, lonesome train whistles, Irish immigrants and Civil War vets). It’s as if the gods of bluegrass demand that the lyrical content of this frenetic plucked music be permanently rooted in geology and era.
But then you get to the last cut. First, a mea culpa of sorts: I was half-listening to The Mountain as I recorded it to cassette, and only caught the beginning of “Pilgrim.” “I am just a pilgrim …” I found myself mulling over the word “pilgrim,” the idea of what a pilgrim is.
Later, listening all the way through on my Walkman, I had a minor epiphany. “I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys, this ain’t never been my home,” Mr. Earle begins, his weary rasp of a voice, giving you the distinct impression that he’s achieved a kind of satori. He goes on:
Ain’t no need to cry for me, boys …
Somewhere down the road you’ll understand.
Cuz I expect to touch his hand, boys…
I’ll put a word in for you if I can .
By the end of the song, this pilgrim is joined by a chorus of Nashville fellow travelers, from Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch to Marty Stuart and Cowboy Jack Clement. I rewound the song, then skipped taking the subway and walked across town to Park Avenue. The sun was down. I hoofed it downtown replaying “Pilgrim” over and over, the words repeating like a reverie. “I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys/ Until I see you, fare thee well.”
I must’ve played that cut 30 times. Hooray for mandolins! Hooray for the violin! What I realized is: I don’t feel any more at home in this world than some illiterate Appalachian moonshiner. We can all, each of us, be pilgrims, not misfits. Living our life is our pilgrimage, whether it be in Kentucky or on Park Avenue. “Pilgrim” has nothing to do with modern times, let alone Mr. Earle’s own burdens (his drug busts, jail time, numerous wives, etc.). It’s a song free of everyone’s history but the listener’s.
It may be that “Pilgrim” won’t touch you at all, but another similarly unburdened track may do the trick. Maybe “Outlaw’s Honeymoon.” Or you’ll ponder the narrator of “The Graveyard Shift,” claiming, “I got what all the women want/ I never say I do/ When I really don’t.”
As for the limitations of bluegrass’ instrumentation, there is an interesting theology that Mr. Cantwell mentions. He writes that the fiddle is the instrument of the Devil “because its music makes the same incursion into the soul as the preacher’s far-flung oratory or the resonant hymn, and establishes sacramental habits every bit as persistent as the habit of purity and is consequently in competition with religion for the heart’s allegiance.”
Mr. Cantwell doesn’t go further and speculate what they play in Heaven. Consider all those Renaissance portraits of angels plucking lutes, an instrument which is, more or less, just another form of the mandolin. Perhaps every bluegrass number is a conflict between heavenly plucking and the Devil sawing away on his fiddle–the tension between the two giving listening pleasure. If the skirmish is recorded in mono like some old Bill Monroe platter, you may keep your headphones on longer than with The Mountain . Either way, pleasure can be found if you listen close, pilgrim.