He walked into the National Press Club like he was walking into a Stuckey’s. Looking like 5-o’-clock hell in a stretched gray T-shirt, snug black blazer, and frumpy black jeans, alterna-troubadour Steve Earle clutched a 20 oz. bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper to his chest. Under a restless shag of thinning black hair, his eyes darted every which way, only settling on another face when he found a smiling Lucinda or a waving Emmylou or a sleepy Willie. Finally, Earle, lugging around close to 300 barrel-chested pounds, plopped onto a seat like a wet sack of spuds and started yammering across the table at two startled journalists.

By the time the 44-year-old former junkie/hard-timer was through that day, weaving his tales of smack (conviction for possession) and the Big House (his “vacation in the ghetto”) and fed-up wives (five so far) in and around the 1998 press conference’s purpose—the Campaign for a Landmine Free World—he had transformed a couple of stringers for USA Today and People into multiple followers slobbering for more war stories. Fellow celeb Willie Nelson left the luncheon early, Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris chatted among themselves, and Sheryl Crow was delayed elsewhere, so Earle, in an aw-shucks style, wooed the crowd on his own. By the time he started in about his final odyssey—driving a beat-up pick-up truck loaded with drugs and guns across the Dust Bowl on a quest to find William S. Burroughs—the room was his.

When he finished the story—amazingly, the hopped-up rocker did find Burroughs, who barked “Fuck off!” at the lonesome traveler before slamming the door in his face—Earle lifted his massive haunches off the seat, murmured a few Texas thank yous, and ambled out of the room like a grizzly with a thorn in his paw. The looks on the writers’ mugs were half mirthful, half who-the-hell-was-that-guy? But whether these journalists knew anything about his rock-‘n’-country music career or the turbulent lifestyle that had almost put him in a pine box, they were certain of this much: Earle, in a cumulation of both good times and real, real bad, has earned the right not to give a shit about any way but his own.

In the liner notes to The Mountain, Earle’s new album and inaugural foray into the world of bluegrass (but, he has threatened, certainly not his last), the San Antonio native claims his “primary motive in writing these songs was both selfish and ambitious—immortality. I wanted to write just one song that would be performed by at least one band at every bluegrass festival in the world long after I have followed Mr. Bill [Monroe] out of this world. Well, we’ll see.”

Well, Earle has shortened the road to immortality enormously by signing on the Del McCoury Band, which Rolling Stone has called “the finest bluegrass ensemble in the world,” to watch his back on all 14 self-penned tracks. (Previously, Earle had worked with McCoury and his sons Ronnie and Rob just one time before: on El Corazón, Earle’s last album, which sounds like Tom Petty as an even bigger hayseed.) The talents of the McCoury brood—whose new release, The Family, is such pure-cut bluegrass it really should be consumed in small doses—complement Earle’s roughneck roots-rocker ways quite well; the result is a thoroughly enjoyable, if not ultimately transcendent, blend of two different musical schools.

At times on The Mountain it seems that Earle is writing rock songs for bluegrass instruments—”Harlan Man” is a redneck stomper fueled by Earle’s exaggerated whine, and “Leroy’s Dustbowl Blues” is a startling homage to Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues” with Gene Wooten’s dobro tugging the number toward Appalachia. He’s at his most comfortable on this “interpretation…of the music that Bill Monroe invented” conjuring front-porch pickin’ parties that McCoury & Sons could crank out in their slumber. “Texas Eagle” runs at a lightning clip thanks to Rob and Ronnie McCoury’s banjo-and-mandolin battle and fiddler Jason Carter’s show-off finale. “Carrie Brown,” which Earle dubs “a real-live bad-tooth-hillbilly murder ballad,” features Del McCoury, who actually grew up in York County, Pa., wailing away with his sky-high tenor and leaving you searching the credits for that striking female voice. The instrumental “Connemara Breakdown,” Earle’s “bluegrass fantasy camp,” features two classic duels: Earle and Ronnie on mandolins, and Stuart Duncan and Carter on fiddles.

Because Earle’s last two albums, I Feel Alright and El Corazón, were so captivating as hook-laden confessionals—he’s come a long way since 1988’s y’alternative thunderbolt “Copperhead Road”—it’s a bit disconcerting to witness the big man basically playing a part. He’s acting here—and doing a damn fine job, mind you—but these days, with so much left to say, Earle’s best at gruff and jangly autobiography. On The Mountain’s closing hymn, “Pilgrim,” written the day of friend and doghouse bass player Roy Huskey Jr.’s funeral, Earle finally smears some of his own blood on the stage. When he sings—with the help of Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Cowboy Jack Clement, among others—”I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys,” you find yourself once again perched around Earle’s portable campfire and wondering wide-eyed how this relatively young man has packed so many highs and lows into so few years.CP