In last week’s instalment of the Chain Gang, Tim Newby described the connections between Ola Belle Reed’s ‘High on a Mountain’ and Roy Acuff’s ‘Wreck on the Highway’ as “tenuous”. In contrast, the connections between Reed’s ‘High on a Mountain’ and Benjamin Tod’s cover of Steve Earle’s ‘The Mountain’ could be described as ubiquitous. That doesn’t mean those connections are uncomplicated.
One of the things that stood out to Tim about ‘High on a Mountain’ was the difference between Reed’s version and any of the long list of covers that he mentioned when you engage with them on an emotional level. Something else that stood out in his treatment of the Reed recording came from the quotes he used to capture Reed’s perspective on her role as an artist.
Her insistence that she wasn’t going to take orders “from no man, from anybody” speaks to the independence and individualism that is characteristic of Appalachia. Her observation that lifestyle, religion, and politics are a part of life and that they can’t be separated from the music pins down the importance of music to Appalachian culture and the people who live in that region.
In 1999, Steve Earle released his 8th studio album, title ‘The Mountain’. He used the Del McCoury Band as his backing band for the sessions. The album was intended to pay tribute to Bill Monroe. The title track from that album is an ode to Appalachia that holds the individualism and pride of place found in Reed’s attitudes in tension with elements of the darker side of Appalachian life.
Earle’s collaboration with McCoury was famously short-lived. Earle put an end to any lingering doubts about that when he carried a hot mic comment from the studio sessions for his next album all the way through to the finished product. But the album that they finished while working together is a masterful combination of Earle’s songwriting chops and McCoury’s skill at bluegrass arrangements.
In hindsight, it’s not surprising that the Earle-McCoury connection ended badly. McCoury is a conservator of the bluegrass tradition. At the time, Earle was most famous for being an outlaw and living a life of excess.
McCoury’s approach reflects the tradition of the Grand Ole Opry. The audiences worked hard all week but they came to the show on Saturday night to be entertained and forget about their troubles. They dressed their best and behaved like ladies and gentlemen. So, it just made sense that the performers on the stage should see their bet and raise it.
Earle couldn’t have been more different from McCoury in personality or personal style. But the song ‘The Mountain’ highlights a more important difference that the two attempted to reconcile within the confines of the album. Earle said the quiet parts out loud.
In Reed’s ‘High on a Mountain’ the lyrics capture the beauty of the region and the poignancy of a moment of introspection. Being heartsick for a lost lover is safe lyrical content for traditional bluegrass audiences.
Earle’s ‘The Mountain’ forces us to look at the limited economic opportunities of the region, the forced choices that people face, and the unequal distribution of risk and rewards that are woven into that way of life. It’s as revealing a glimpse into the realities as the ones we get from John Prine’s ‘Paradise’ or Tyler Childers’ ‘Nose to the Grindstone’.
The emotional connection that Tim preferred from Reed’s recording of ‘High on a Mountain’ gets lost in the re-presentation of the song by McCoury and others who emphasized style over substance. ‘The Mountain’ works in reverse. The emotional heft of Earle’s lyrics is an outsider’s perspective and something of a bitter pill to swallow. McCoury’s arrangements are the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.
Which brings us to the Tod version of Earle’s song. Benjamin Tod goes further than most artists to preserve and promote the traditions that form the foundations of Appalachian music and culture. In his performance of the Earle song, everything comes full circle. He reintroduces the true weight of Earle’s song through the sparse arrangement and the raw emotion of his performance.