By Barry Gilbert

Unpublished; review of performance in St. Louis on March 31, 1999

Bluegrass rocks!

But it shouldn't be a surprise. Since "Guitar Town" shook up Nashville in 1986, Steve Earle has been demolishing the borders among rock, country, blues and folk, and now he has obliterated the line with bluegrass as well.

For three hours, Earle and the virtuosos of The Del McCoury Band, modern bluegrass' brightest stars, treated a packed Mississippi Nights to their latest CD, "The Mountain," and to the McCourys' and Earle's formidable catalog.

But this was no electrified, rounded-edges attempt to appeal to the mainstream. Earle - hair and beard trimmed and wearing a suit and tie! - and the McCoury band played unamplified, acoustic instruments, performing an intricate dance around a central microphone, gliding in for solos and ole-ing out of the way of fiddle bows and flying guitar necks.

Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass to whom "The Mountain" is dedicated, would have been proud of the sharp, high harmonies of Del McCoury (guitar) and sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo), who provided the balance to Earle's often rough, edgy vocals.

Earle has always sung great stories, about losers, sinners and heroes - some who wear blue collars, some who wear military colors.

Now he's become adept at storytelling. The third quarter of the show opened with Earle, alone in the spotlight, picking his guitar and talking about his high school years, from the social caste system to drugs ("Bubba never could grasp the concept that I couldn't see his hallucinations").

Largely somber, the solo set featured "No. 29," "Taneytown," "Devil's Right Hand" and the stark, anti-death penalty "Ellis Unit 1" from the film "Dead Man Walking."

The evening began with a warning from Earle, once a Nashville Music Row outlaw and now, with singer and Twangtrust producing partner Ray Kennedy, proprietor of his own E-Squared label.

"Those of you who came to drink and be seen, well, we see you, now you can go home," Earle said. This night "is all about the music."

And what music. Tunes from "The Mountain" - "Yours Forever Blue," "Graveyard Shift," and "Dixieland" - flowed seamlessly with older Earle numbers including "Train a' Comin'," "Hometown Blues," "Tom Ames' Prayer," "Ben McCulloch" "Hillbilly Highway" and, of course, the originally electrified "Copperhead Road" ("I told y'all this was a bluegrass song," Earle said).

Especially touching was the pairing of "Harlan Man" and "The Mountain," about a Kentucky coal miner and "a way of life that's disappeared in our lifetime. It was never a great way of life," Earle said, "but it sure beat the alternative."

The Del McCoury Band took a solo turn and quickly won over those who had come to see Steve Earle.

McCoury's band, which also features Jason Carter on fiddle and Mike Bub on upright bass, played tunes from its new CD, "The Family," and older tunes, ranging from the instrumental rave of "Red Eyes of a Mad Dog" and the ballad "City of Stone" to a wonderful version of John Sebastian's "Nashville Cats," a Lovin' Spoonful hit from the '60s.