Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band
The most telling part of this album, a tribute to bluegrass icon Bill Monroe, comes in the liner notes by country-rock star Earle. “I wish,” writes Earle, 44, “I were as sure about anything as Bill Monroe was about everything.” Musically, the performances here come close to Monroe’s standards: The mandolin playing by Earle, Sam Bush and Ronnie McCoury is especially lively, and fiddler Jason Carter saws away nicely. But the vocals, led by Earle and Del McCoury, have a gastric-cum-nasal quality and truly suffer by comparison when Emmylou Harris’s sublime soprano turns up in a background vocal.
Earle wrote all the tunes, which mostly have a self-consciously artsy quality—just the quality that Monroe’s refreshingly natural music was never burdened with. “Long, Lonesome Highway Blues” best mixes Earle’s raw energy with bluegrass’s glib musicality, but more typical is the cliché-ridden “Carrie Brown,” which Earle has described as a “real-live-bad-tooth-hillbilly murder ballad.”
Bottom Line: Country rocker aims too high