The Bluegrass Lawnmower

Steve Earle, enemy of God, mother, and bluegrass?

ANY PERFORMER CHALLENGING fan expectations risks a backlash, but Steve Earle has managed to piss off a whole new audience. Released in February, his ninth studio album, The Mountain, found the country-rock cult icon collaborating with a fine bluegrass four-piece, the Del McCoury Band, and the team soon embarked on a spring-summer tour to promote the album. The famously belligerent Earle was on his best behavior throughout, even wearing a suit and tie onstage, as is the McCourys' custom. "Bill Monroe was all about bringing respect to bluegrass and giving it dignity," Earle told the monthly magazine Bluegrass Unlimited. "So out of respect to Bill and because Del feels more comfortable that way, I'll wear a suit and tie."

Even so, the tour fell apart in mid-July, when promoters announced the McCourys would be replaced by the Bluegrass Dukes, a makeshift foursome assembled and led by guitarist Tim O'Brien. The reason? Earle "wanted to do some bluegrass festivals," the 69-year-old McCoury told the Greenville, South Carolina, weekly Creative Loafing. "I kind of didn't want him in the bluegrass community because I always like to have a clean show...And there's no place onstage, I don't think, for vulgarity, for anything like that...So I just nipped it in the bud."

True, Earle can be an ornery cuss onstage, a persona he adapted from his mid-1970s Nashville mentor, Guy Clark. "I didn't mean to offend Del or anyone else," Earle responded in an interview with the Web site Miles of Music. "But I'm just sorta the way I am, and I think I have something to contribute to this music...and I really, genuinely care about it."

Every genre has its idiosyncratic performance codes, but perhaps none are as strict as those in bluegrass. The music, adherents will tell you, was invented in the 1940s by Bill Monroe and his band the Blue Grass Boys, whose oft-changing lineup included pioneers such as Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and Jimmy Martin. Traditional bluegrass prizes musicianship, speed, and carefully constructed harmonies. Purists will say real bluegrass bands use a mandolin (Big Mon's instrument, after all) and a banjo (which Scruggs revolutionized) and don't use electric instruments or drums. Bastard styles not fulfilling these requirements are called "progressive" or "newgrass" and often scorned. Bluegrass Unlimited devoted a significant portion of its July feature on Earle to parsing his authenticity, concluding that "seven [of fourteen] numbers on The Mountain can stake a legitimate claim to bluegrass."

But where bluegrass is hard on music, it's harder on behavior. The exit rationale offered by McCoury (who served under Monroe in 1963 and '64) is illustrative. As Earle suggests, bluegrass reflects the personality of Monroe, who adhered to conservative values summed up by two lapel pins he always wore: an American flag and the word Jesus. Since Monroe's death in 1995, younger artists have sought to carry on his legacy, most notably Ricky Skaggs, who retreated from a moderately successful career in mainstream country to water his bluegrass roots. In 1997 Skaggs formed his own label, Ceili Music (now home to McCoury), and released the aptly titled Bluegrass Rules! followed last year by Ancient Tones.

The Mountain is Earle's entry into this derby, but he is too self-conscious to make the mark he wants to. Earle seems to think writing bluegrass means adopting its imagery, singing about miners and outlaws, soldiers and trains, in the same way that he thought a suit and tie might disguise his rock 'n' roll soul. Maybe he should've set his sights on something less than immortality in a foreign genre: say, just getting inside the gate at a bluegrass festival.

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