When Steve Earle made his second Australian tour he discovered two stunning songbirds - Iris De Ment and Kasey Chambers.

Steve Earle - 12 Jan 2004
( photo by Steve Snowden)

Earle recruited Iris for his 10th album The Mountain after he saw her perform at the 1998 East Coast Blues Festival at Byron Bay.

"I was standing there and I thought there's my duet partner for the bluegrass record," Earle told Nu Country in a call from Nashville in 2000.
"I've always been an Iris De Ment fan. There's always been a duet on my last couple of albums - one with Lucinda Williams and one with Siobahn Kennedy. I was well into writing the songs and knew what kind of record I was going to make with the McCoury band. Iris is a big Del McCoury fan as well, it worked out great."

Iris - youngest of 14 children and latter day wife of Greg Brown - also co-wrote her third album title track The Way I Should with five times wed former convict country legend Merle Haggard.

She also won acclaim for her duet with McClinton on Trouble on that album.

But the conduit for the other discovery was Ohio born singer-songwriter Buddy Miller, lead guitarist in the bands of both Earle and Emmylou Harris.

Miller's normal duet partner - wife Julie - wasn't available so Buddy performed at Byron Bay with Dead Ringer Band singer Chambers.


"Kasey Chambers, man, is probably the best female hillbilly singer I've heard in a long, long time," Earle, now 49, revealed, "she's working on a solo album. She's a pretty damn good songwriter and she's getting better all the time. She's only young. She might be 22 by now. We're trying to pull the duet together. The song's written and they recorded it when I was in Ireland. Hopefully, the duet will be on her new solo album."

Steve's duets appear to have more longevity than some of his marriages - but his fourth wife Lou Ann became his sixth wife when he divorced fifth wife Theresa Ensenat who signed Guns n Roses to their major record deal.

Earle is once again single but his musical marriage with the Del McCoury Band blew hats off cats from Nashville to Newcastle.

Especially when Earle was later bounced from the tour for alleged on stage profanity that burned the buckle of the bluegrass bible belt.

The union began in 1990 when the McCourys cut Earle song Call Me If You Need A Fool on their album Blue Side Of Town.

"You have no idea how cool it is to have a song on that record," Steve confided, "it's one of the best bluegrass records ever made."

And, of course, there was the collaboration with the McCourys on the tune I Still Carry You Around on Steve's 9th album El Corazon in 1997.

Del McCoury debuted in 1959 before joining Bill Monroe's band in 1963 as a banjo player and then working in a sawmill.

Del cut his first disc, Dixie Pals, in 1967 and was part of the trio for the acclaimed album Mac, Doc & Del.

The Mountain was born one night in 1995 when the late Bill Monroe walked on stage during an Earle concert at the Tennessee Performing Arts Centre in Nashville.

Monroe lit the flame sang six songs with Earle, Pete Rowan, Roy Huskey Jr and Norman Blake.


That inspiration was catalysed by Virginia born, Texas raised and long time Tennessee resident Earle who cut the vocals and instrumentation live with the exception of the marathon Roy Huskey Jr tribute The Pilgrim.

"It's the fun way and right way to record this type of music," says Earle who drew his inspiration for Copperhead Road from the descendants of the moonshiners in his adoptive home state and jumped the border for the Harlan Man/Mountain suite.

"I've got a friend from East Kentucky who flew right over West Virginia and said it looked like they had peeled the pig and turned it loose," Earle revealed, "it originally came from a conversation with Kathy Whitley, she was Keith Whitley's first wife. We're really good friends. They come in now and knock the top off the whole mountain. That's the only type of coal mining that's going on up there. As hard as it was on everyone underground mining was a way of life and how people made a living. My orientation is pretty western because I'm from Texas but I've lived on this side of the Mississippi for quite a while now. It's the first time I got pretty deep into that. It's where the inspiration for this music comes from. I decided to see what was in there."

What Earle found was translated into songs that dug beneath the surface of a genre which re-invented itself with the advent of artists like Nashville Bluegrass Band, Austin Lounge Lizards, Claire Lynch, Alison Krauss, Pete Rowan and a swag of younger artists.
That mood is set by the intro track Texas Eagle - a devastatingly accurate biographical piece on the demise of trains across the U.S.


Earle also took a pro-active stance on the blanding out of mainstream country with his murder ballad Carrie Brown.

"The main thing wrong with country music today is there's not enough songs about killing people," says Steve whose previous albums were littered with losers, "I missed the Long Black Veils, Katie Dears etc. Carrie Brown is totally fictional, of course."

Earle, whose wanderlust owes as much to Woody Guthrie as Dylan and Hank, found it easy to write Lee Roy's Dust Bowl Blues and Long, Lonesome Highway Blues.

"It's my Do Re Mi," Earle says, "I lived in California. It's the type of song I would have written five or six years ago if I could have written. I wasn't writing hardly any thing at all before I got clean. I thought about a song like that for a long time but I wrote it just for the record."

Earle also wrote the tune Outlaw's Honeymoon for the movie Niagara, Niagara but withdrew the song after a publishing dispute.

"I co-publish my stuff with a large publisher who pays a lot of money for my half of it," says Earle, "it's a lot my livelihood and the film maker wanted my share. I'm not going to give him one of my songs for life. I said they could kiss my Texas arse."

Earle's spirit may have been spiked by his heroin and jail years but his soul has emerged unscathed - especially on the tribute to double bassist Huskey who died of lung cancer at 53 and was also honoured by Sam Bush in his Song For Roy from his album Howling At The Moon.


"I was asked to sing at his funeral where I was a pall bearer," Earle revealed, "I scanned a couple of ideas about what I was going to sing but I wasn't happy with any of them. So I finally decided to write something. Everyone on that track is someone who worked with Roy or was close to Roy. His widow Lisa and the kids Taylor and J.T. There's also Benny Martin and Roy's father who came to Nashville together. Sam Bush had to be there, he plays mandolin on that track. It's the only thing on the record we didn't record live. Ronnie McCoury played bouzouki. But I had to go to Tucson, Arizona, to get Emmylou and her daughter Meaghan on it. They were working on a Linda Ronstadt album, it was the first duet together of Emmylou and Meaghan."

Ironically, The Mountain was chased up the Americana charts by Trio 2 - whose sales exceeded 150,000 despite being ignored by mainstream radio.

Steve is also pro-active with his own record label E Squared - formed with the late Jack Emerson - the launch pad for artists diverse as The V-Roys (Knoxville), 6 String Drag (North Carolina), Cheri Knight (New England), Ross Rice (Memphis), former Energy Orchard singer Bap Kennedy (Belfast).


And there's also his support of the campaign to eradicate land mines - fully documented in the Buddy Miller song 100 Million Little Bombs from his second album Poison Love.

"The Vietnam Veterans Federation is one of a whole bunch of organisations doing stuff in Cambodia and Vietnam on land mines," Earle revealed after Ms Harris, her mother and a group toured Vietnam and Cambodia.

"It's amazing to think when was the last time you saw an amputee in America. No, you don't see that many. But in Phnom Penn you would see three or four amputees every city block. The land mines are doing every bit of it. The U.S. hasn't signed a treaty but I'm here because I have a big mouth and they know it. It's embarrassing the U.S. China & Russia haven't signed a treaty. They manufacture most of them. Clinton made a lot of concessions but they didn't outlaw them. But the mentality is that the middle class are doing better so everyone is doing alright."

Earle has replaced his hunger for opiates with a pipe penchant and an energetic song rebirth in locales diverse as Galway and hidden nooks and crannies of the U.S.A.
His tune All Of My Life joined Dolly Parton's Jolene in a recent remake of Psycho and he won wide acclaim for Me And The Eagle in Robert Redford movie The Horse Whisperer which shot Allison Moorer to fame with her hit A Softer Place To Fall.

Right now Earle shows no sign of needing a softer place to fall.

top / back to diary