1999 – Steve Earle and The Del McCoury Band – The Mountain

1999 - Steve Earle

From the opening drawl of, “M..I..C..K..E..Y..M..O..You gotta put your hat on boy. Alright, you wanna be in the band, better put your hat on…” I knew I’d found it, that new ‘something’ I’d been looking for – bluegrass music. It was at once everything I liked about music; raw, basic, live and lively. It was rock ‘n’ roll fused with country, fused with blues and folk. It certainly wasn’t new but it was new enough to me. I’d never particularly been a fan of his, but I’d heard Steve Earle being interviewed on the radio as I was on the way home from the gym one Saturday afternoon and had been massively impressed with his attitude. He told how his record company hadn’t wanted him to release a bluegrass album but he’d done it anyway, because he ‘believed in it’. He recounted how the musicians had all basically sat in a room, around one microphone and just played. And how they played! The musicianship was brilliant but never at the expense of the songs. They were lean and tight with great melodies and heartfelt words. The song they played on the radio was title track ‘The Mountain’; the line, “there’s a chill in the air only miners can feel, and there’s ghosts in the tunnels that the company sealed” sending shivers down my spine. I bought the album as soon as possible and played it to death, telling everyone and anyone who would listen. I learnt four songs within a week and stored them in my mental jukebox for use at some later date. Years before this, my dad had bought and played me a cassette by a bloke called Buckwheat Zydeco, raving about the bum-ching beat that he loved do much. Zydeco music is very very similar to bluegrass. It did strike me that at very nearly forty years of age, I was turning into my dad!

And it was my fortieth birthday in August. It wasn’t as if it could slide by unnoticed either as the day of my birthday was the very day Britain “all went strangely dark”. It was a total eclipse of the sun, a rare occurrence in this country but which, along with James being born at the exact time the rare nacreous clouds appeared over Sheffield, made me think we were somehow linked to the skies. Everyone on the news was warning us not to look directly at the sun but, sod that, I thought. I looked. I didn’t go blind. Out on the patio, it did go unnaturally cold as the darkness grew and whilst up in the north of England it wasn’t a totally total eclipse, it was pretty spectacular.

For my ‘significant birthday’ present, Wendy paid for me to spend a week photographing the ancient stones in the Kilmartin area of Scotland. It is littered with them: standing stones, circles and burial chambers, many in alignments and often very photogenic. The stones of Ballymeanoch were my favourites and I shot them using infrared film, something I’d never tried before. I went with Martin, the guitarist in The Rogues, who had also begun getting interested in photography. We got on well and had a great time, even if we did get wry, knowing, “they must be gay” looks from the other hotel guests at breakfast every morning.

The project with Tracey had now developed into a full-blown obsession. Most weeks we’d spend a couple of hours in my kitchen as I painted her face in the style of a famous picture before photographing the result. We recreated paintings by Van Gogh, Degas and Matisse amongst others, with some vaguely emerging notion of getting twelve shots together to make into a calendar. Most of all however, it was the time spent together that was important, bouncing ideas back and forth, urging each other on to new creative heights.

The year ended with The Rogues getting paid ridiculous amounts of money to provide the backing music for a variety of singers in a New Year’s Eve review show at The Brentwood Hotel in Rotherham. After The Holy Rollers finished, Grahame had done a lot of work as musical director for a few amateur operatic societies and he’d often used us to play in shows at The Civic Theatre or the Arts College, particularly for shows such as Grease or Bugsy Malone. He knew he could trust us to be able to play most styles of music so thought we’d be perfect for the gig. New Year’s Eve always pays well for a band but because it was the millennium, it was especially good. We didn’t actually have to work particularly hard either: play a few songs, have a break while the singers change costumes, play a few more songs, have another break and so on. In many of the breaks we went off to a quiet corner with our guitars and ran through possible new songs for the band. Quite naturally, a couple of Steve Earle songs found their way into our ever-expanding set list.

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