Styles & Forms | Alt. Country & The Bluegrass Revival
When Steve Earle (b. 1955) was released from prison on 16 November 1994, it had been four years since he had released a studio album and three years since he’d done a tour. During that time lost to heroin and crack, much had changed in the world of country music.
The charismatic but mainstream-pop-oriented Garth Brooks (b. 1962) was setting new records for country sales and most of the other acts on the country charts were scrambling to imitate Brooks.
Pushed aside in the excitement was the progressive-country movement of which the pre-prison Earle had been a part. Earle’s heroes, Emmylou Harris (b. 1947) and Guy Clark (b. 1941), had already had their last Top 40 country hits, and so had such peers as Rosanne Cash (b. 1955), Rodney Crowell (b. 1950) and Lyle Lovett (b. 1957). The mainstays of the Outlaws movement – Willie Nelson (b. 1933), Waylon Jennings (b. 1937), Johnny Cash (1932–2003) and Kris Kristofferson (b. 1936) – would never again have a Top 40 single without the crutch of a duet with a younger singer. The movement seemed to have stalled.
Yet, as Earle began to reconnect with the music world, acquiring his first guitar in years and starting to play again, he found glimmers of hope. Several terrific female singer-songwriters had emerged: Lucinda Williams (b. 1953), Iris DeMent (b. 1961) and Mary Chapin Carpenter (b. 1958). Alison Krauss And Union Station, Mark O’Connor and Bela Fleck And The Flecktones were opening new territory for string-band musicians. Down in Australia, The Dead Ringer Band and Paul Kelly were putting their own spin on American country music.
Two Nashville couples – Buddy and Julie Miller and Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings – were digging deep into traditional country with shovels sharpened by Townes Van Zandt-like songwriting. And several young rock bands that had found the punk format too constricting – most notably Uncle Tupelo, Blue Mountain, The Old ’97s, The Jayhawks, The Bottle Rockets, Whiskeytown and The Blood Oranges – had reached out to country music as a vehicle for the same iconoclastic fervor. Many of these younger acts looked to Earle and his generation as role models.
Earle’s first move after prison was to ease back into the spotlight with an acoustic string-band album. Bluegrass had been a purification rite for progressive-country musicians – a way to flush out trendy distractions and to reconnect with essential roots – ever since Emmylou Harris had made Roses In The Snow in 1980. Earle hired three of the best bluegrass musicians in Nashville – guitarist Norman Blake, mandolinist Peter Rowan and bassist Roy Huskey Jr. – to record 1995’s Train A Comin’ and finally fulfilled his dream of singing with Harris herself. Earle would return to bluegrass in 1999 by recording The Mountain with the Del McCoury Band and Iris DeMent.
But first, having regained his confidence, Earle made a very different album in 1996 – the loud,...
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