By Eleni P. Austin
Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle’s paths have been crossing for nearly 30 years, so it seems almost inevitable that they would collaborate on a project together. Since both artists mine the rich traditions of Rock, Folk and Country, their musical union is a natural fit.
Shawn Colvin was born in 1956, and grew up in Vermillion, South Dakota. She took up guitar at age 10, by the late ‘70s she had worked her way through bar bands, cover bands, even Western Swing bands. She led a peripatetic existence, crisscrossing the continent. She spent time in London, Ontario; Berkeley, California and Austin, Texas before settling in New York City.
Working the Folk clubs in the Big Apple she slowly began to incorporate her own nascent compositions into her cover-heavy sets. Her diligence paid off, and she was signed to Columbia Records in 1988.
Her debut, Steady On, arrived a year later and included instant classics like “Diamond In The Rough” and “Shotgun Down The Avalanche.” The whole record trafficked in themes of romantic disappointment, and won a Grammy for Best Folk Album. She quickly followed up with Fat City in 1992 and Cover Girl, (a collection of favorite cover songs), in 1994.
Her watershed album, A Few Small Repairs, was released in 1996. Most of the songs centered on the dissolution of her marriage, so in music industry shorthand, it became her “divorce” record. But the songs struck a chord, reaching #7 on the Billboard charts and winning Grammys for Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year.
In the 20 years since, Shawn remarried and gave birth to her daughter, Caldonia. After acclimating to motherhood and ending her second marriage, she continued to write, tour and record, releasing albums like A Whole New You and These Four Walls in 2001 and 2006. She also went public with her bi-polar issues, handling it with her typical humor and grace. She even covered Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” on her Shawn Colvin Live record.
2012 saw the release of her candid memoir, Diamond In The Rough, which chronicled her musical creativity and documented bouts with anorexia as a teen and her early dependence on alcohol as a social lubricant. That same year, she recorded her excellent seventh effort, All Fall Down. Last year, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Cover Girl, she released Uncovered, another collection re-interpreting favorite songs from Bruce Springsteen, Crowded House and Tom Waits.
Steve Earle’s career has taken more raucous and rebellious routes. Stephen Fain Earle was born in 1955 and grew up near San Antonio, Texas. He picked up the guitar at age 11 and by Junior High School he had his own band, the Bluesmen. He dropped out of high school at 16 and got married. Three years later he was pursuing a music career in Nashville with his second wife. (All told, he’s been married seven times to six women).
A protean songwriter, his early influences included Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones as well as Texas troubadours like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. He signed a publishing deal and well-known artists like Emmylou Harris, Johnny Lee and Carl Perkins hit the top of the charts with his songs. Soon, Steve signed his own recording contract with the MCA label.
Along with Dwight Yoakam, k.d. lang, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith, Steve was viewed as a talented outlier by the Nashville establishment. His debut for MCA, Guitar Town, arrived in 1986. Ever the rebel, Steve eschewed the perky Country-Pop sound that topped the charts. Instead, he crafted populist anthems that hewed more closely to the music of Rockers like Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. Critics were quick to connect the dots and the album topped a lot of year-end Top 10 lists.
Steve could give a shit about being popular. His goal was to remain authentic. Straddling the line between Country and Rock, he fully embraced his outlaw status. Although he continued to write and record at a prodigious rate, his appetite for destruction kept pace with his musical output. He closed out the ‘80s deep in the grips of a serious drug addiction.
By the early ‘90s, music took a backseat to his habit. The outgoing message on his answering machine infamously instructed callers “This is Steve, I’m probably out shooting heroin, chasing 13 year old girls and beatin’ up cops. But I’m old and tire easily, so leave a message and I’ll get back to you.” Arrested for heroin possession and sentenced to a year in jail, he served 60 days, followed by a stint in re-hab.
Since 1994, Steve has been clean and sober, wildly prolific and politically engaged. He’s recorded 12 albums, written three books, created an off-Broadway play and produced records for everyone from Joan Baez to the Supersuckers to Lucinda Williams. He’s also carved out a niche as a character actor, most prominently on two acclaimed HBO series, “The Wire” and “Treme.”
Ironically, for the last several years, Steve has lived in New York City and Shawn has been raising her daughter in Austin, Texas. A couple of years ago the longtime pals embarked on a joint tour and it seemed to cement their musical shorthand. They also discovered that they share the same coping mechanisms for tackling their demons.
When Steve suggested they write and record an album together, Shawn was skeptical, citing her infamous writer’s block and the fact that Steve has never really collaborated with another songwriter. But he persisted, and the result is their self-titled debut.
The album opens with the Folk-flavored sing-a-long “Come What May.” Over a stompy beat and strummy acoustic guitars their voices intertwine around lyrics that promise “No matter what you do, no matter what you say/I’ll come back to you, come what may.” Sunshiny electric licks and a shambolic harmonica solo underscore this oath of fealty.
Steve has characterized their vocal blend being less the face-to-face, Tammy & George Country couple dynamic and more like Crosby, Stills & Nash. As liquid arpeggios wash over piquant stand-up bass and brushed drums, “The Way We Do” is the only track where they trade verses like lovers sharing a musical conversation.
Shawn offers a cogent dissertation of artistic self-reliance: “Travel alone down to the bone, just passin’ through/Walkin’ a wire feet to the fire, the way that I do.” Steve prefers snatches of creative co-dependence; “Lyin’ in bed a tune in my head, from out of the blue/You come along singin’ a song, the way that you do.”
Both “Happy And Free” and “You’re Right, I’m Wrong” highlight the duo’s dissonant chemistry. On the former a relax-fit rhythm butts up against mandolin filigrees and loping lap-steel. Shawn’s winsome contralto wraps around Steve’s rough-hewn rasp as they ponder the elusive key to happiness. The answer is found in the intangibles; “Sometimes there’s a blessin’ you can see, the sunset on the water and the baby on your knee/But you’ll find that everything you need you’re carrying around inside.”
The latter exudes more scabrous and subterranean charms. Bluesy, bottleneck guitar shudders and stings as the pair dissect another failed relationship. Their musings produce this tart epiphany, “maybe the truth is neither one of us ever loved anyone at all.”
The best tracks here are a Colvin & Earle original, “Tell Moses” and a cover of an Emmylou Harris deep cut, “Raise The Dead.” A trenchant lyricist, Steve has never shied away from political controversy. He’s always been anti-war and anti-death penalty. A shaggy anarchist, he rarely endears himself to Country music’s core, conservative audience. That tradition is alive and well on “Tell Moses.”
The song is powered by a ramshackle rhythm, blistering baritone guitar, twinkly mandolin and wheezy harmonica notes. With a few deft strokes the lyrics thread a through-line from Moses to Martin Luther King to Ferguson, Missouri, (Ground Zero for the Black Lives Matter movement). It’s a conscious call to arms: “Ferguson, Missouri people in the streets, hands above their heads and standin’ up to the police/Waitin’ on a hero to step into the breach, ain’t nobody comin’ so it’s up to you and me.”
“Raise The Dead” strikes a lighter tone. Pliant acoustic riffs collide with a swinging back-beat, rumbling bass lines and obstreperous harmonica on this jangly, back-porch ramble. The lyrics compare the untimely deaths of musical icons like Hank Williams, Sam Cooke and Robert Johnson with a tempestuous romantic relationship; “Sam Cooke met the woman at the well, she told him that his song was something he could never sell/And I think he knew a change was gonna come, still he lived to fast and he died too young/Well, dyin’ young I have survived, but I’ll never get out of your love alive.”
For singer-songwriters, playing other people’s songs is a bit of a Busman’s Holiday. Shawn and Steve were eager to add their imprimatur to three well-known hits. Shawn came to the sessions with John D. Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road.” A hit for British Invasion band the Nashville Teens, it’s also been recorded by artists as disparate as Lou Rawls, Jefferson Airplane, and David Lee Roth. Their version sidesteps the Nashville Teens’ Garage Rock stomp, swapping it out for a swampy, gut-bucket groove.
Steve ransacked the Stones voluminous back-catalog, rather than of settling on a stripped-down ‘70s nugget, he urged Shawn to go for baroque by tackling “Ruby Tuesday,” a #1 hit from 1967.
Before they were dissolute Rock Gods, the Rolling Stones spent the ‘60s playing catch-up with the Beatles. Their original is an ornate Chamber Pop classic, anchored by Brian Jones’ doleful recorder. Shawn and Steve’s version, even though it features banjo, bouzouki and sawing cello, is bare-bones. The less cluttered arrangement and instrumentation kind of dirties up the pretty, allowing the listener to focus on the melancholy lyrics.
Finally, the duo, offer an exuberant take on “You Were On My Mind.” Originally an early ‘60s hit for folk stalwarts Ian & Sylvia, it was recalibrated as a Folk-Rocker by the We Five in 1965. Shawn and Steve split the difference. Ironically, the lyrics seem to fit hand-in-glove with their hard won life experiences.
The album closes with “You’re Still Gone.” Equal parts hushed lullaby and restless farewell, the instrumentation is suitably spare. Co-written with singer-songwriter Julie Miller it offers this tender encomium; “And the world keeps spinnin’ round, my heart still makes that sound/And I can hear you laughin’ now, but you’re still gone, you’re still gone/And I don’t know what I’m waitin’ on, but I depended on you for so long.” A wistful finish to an incredible record!
The album was produced by Buddy Miller, Julie’s husband and (along with T-Bone Burnett, Rick Rubin and Dave Cobb), one of the most interesting and sought-after producers working in the music business today. Recorded in Buddy’s home studio, it includes longtime Steve Earle compatriots like drummer Fred Eltringham, bassists Chris Wood and Kelley Looney and guitarist Richard Bennett.
Shawn and Steve have forged a potent partnership. There’s a musical kinship between them that can’t be faked. Hopefully, this is just the beginning.