Pickin' Graceful Battles

It was almost 20 years ago when Hank Williams Jr. first sang, "All my rowdy friends have settled down," but he could have been referring to Steve Earle these days. Making a graceful transition from hard-rocking country to old-fashioned bluegrass, Steve Earle has hooked up with the Del McCoury Band for a traditionalist outing that is both passionate and mature.

The template for this record is the legendary music of Bill Monroe, who practically invented the bluegrass genre along with band members Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. With Steve writing the songs and former Monroe sideman Del McCoury acting as musical director, The Mountain showcases some swaggering vocal performances as well as first-class picking. Del McCoury is a fleet guitarist and, with his sons Ronnie and Rob playing mandolin and banjo respectively, this disc is an exciting, yet intimate musical affair.

On the ballad "I’m Still in Love with You" Earle sings a heartfelt duet with Iris Dement. For the most part, however, this is an upbeat album with great instrumental work by the McCourys, fiddle player Jason Carter and bassist Mike Bub. Like all good bluegrass, the songs on The Mountain have their roots in country, blues, gospel and Celtic music. "Carrie Brown" is a fast-paced murder ballad and "Connemara Breakdown" is a showcase for some superb mandolin playing. On a solemn note, the album closes with "The Pilgrim," a beautiful tribute to the late Roy Huskey Jr., a remarkable bass player who worked with darn near everybody in Nashville.

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