Ecological Outlaw

by Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band,
Grapevine Records, 1999, f 13. 00

Any diagnosis of the popular music scene based on the evidence of MTV videos, the Eurovision Song Contest or the Top Twenty charts could only conclude that this aspect of human culture is in a pretty precarious state. Modern music seems to alternate between utterly pasteurized muzak, (the musical equivalent of McDonalds), on the one hand, and, on the other, equally empty but even more tuneless beats, as painful on the ear as on the mind. Yet there are exceptions, and one is the latest CD from the American musician Steve Earle, a veteran of the country and folk rock scene.

The Mountain sees him teaming up with the premier bluegrass band built around the three McCoury brothers on guitar, banjo and mandolin, with fiddler Jason Carter and double bass player Mike Bub, plus assorted guests. Earle's life has had its ups and downs, with more than its share of drugs, divorce and

general disorder, including a spell in jail. Yet, somehow, he has survived and is producing work light years away from the bland commercial pap of so called New Country artists like Garth Brooks. This CD is dedicated to the memory of the great bluegrass artist Bill Monroe and surely he would have been pleased with the results.

There are several reasons why ecologically minded listeners should lend an ear to The Mountain, and to Earle's work in general. Some readers, for example, might have seen the group performing on BBC 2's Jools Holland Show. Part of the degeneracy of contemporary music making is its sheer artifice, not least its dependence on technology such as mixing desks and backing tapes as a substitute for actual talent. By contrast, on that show, Earle and his partners gave a classic exposition of what musicianship is all about, grouped around a single microphone, giving individual instruments prominence simply by leaning forward. Refreshingly, music making, not ego boosting, came first.

But it is also the content of the music which is so refreshing, not just the way it is performed. All the songs on the CD are written by Earle and the lyrics are deeply rooted in both place and history, mainly in this case the eastern mountains of the USA. Insofar as most pop songs contain any audible words, they often reflect the self indulgent nature of consumerist society. Earle's writing stands in marked contrast. It is as sharp as his voice, with a political edge far more cutting and focused than, dare I say it, the likes of Bob Dylan. Listen to, for example, 'Harlan Man', a song about a Kentucky miner: "I took a union stand, not what the company said." (Some readers may remember his song 'Good ol' Boy', attacking Ronald Reagan's assault on workers' rights, and Earle's support for Farm Aid). Earle's songs are infused with a love of the land. In The Mountain, the lyrics open grandly but starkly, to a gorgeous melody: "I was born on this mountain a long time ago, before(

knocked the timber and strip mined the coal." Other songs delve further into history, such as 'Dixieland the story of an Irish rebel fighting for the Union army.

Earle stands in the footsteps of such luminaries as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Earle follows Guthrie in tackling the Depression and the Dust Bowl disaster. His work similarly portrays an America scarred by injustice and heartlessness. But I suspect there is a deeper ecological sensibility in Earle's work and, musically, it has more attack than either Guthrie or Seeger.

Perhaps Earle somewhat indulges himself in the 'outlaw' persona on some of his CDs. After all, one person's 'rebel rouser' is another's anti social pest. But Earle has served his time on the music scene and it is far richer for his efforts. The excellent recent CD, Car Wheel on a Gravel Road, from Lucinda Williams, a bluesier folk artist, was, for example, part produced by Earle.

Globalisation and the commercial imperative together might be ironing out the once rich diversity of musical cultures around the world. But as long as Steve Earle and others ploughing a similar furrow (Ry Cooder springs to mind) survive, there will still be riches to be found amidst all the dross. Sandv Irvine

Saiidy Irvine is a member of The Ecologists Advisory Board

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