"I grew up in a teeny little town in South Dakota,” begins Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Shawn Colvin of “Someday,” the Steve Earle song she recorded on her 1994 Covergirl. “I didn’t pump gas, but I could so relate to the teeny weeny hometown you needed to get out of, to know there was more to the world than (that) ... the idea of escape ... and the Wizard of Oz reference.
“It was the first Steve Earle song I ever heard, and I played it on the record player over and over again.”
What Colvin didn’t know when she cut that song from Earle’s 1986 debut, Guitar Town, was the acclaimed roots rocker was in the throes of addiction and a certain kind of homelessness driven by heroin dependency. But it’s something the then-triple Grammy-nominated, now triple Grammy-winner – and 11-time nominee – never forgot.
“She recorded it when I was pretty much homeless,” says the Houston-born, Nashville-forged, New York City-dwelling songwriter/activist. “I had a house in Fairview, but there wasn’t any dope there. So I was living on either side of the Pike – between Murfreesboro Road or Lafayette on either side of Nolensville Pike.
“I lived in my car sometimes ... Til I traded it to some dealers for a hit of dope, and they got it imploded. Guess they were doing a deal, got busted and I lost my car.”
If this seems like the place where self-reflection would slow the conversation, Earle pauses microscopically and perhaps inhales. His pitch drops a little, the force eases, and he continues, “During that time, Emmy(lou Harris) recorded ‘Guitar Town’ and Shawn did ‘Someday’ – and during those days, those were the only signs of light, the only connection to what I’d been...”
Harris, living in Nashville, was well aware of Earle’s struggles; Colvin, living in New York City, was not. “My version didn’t really stray far from his... ‘Naïve Melody,’ that Talking Heads song I really changed up, but I thought (with ‘Someday’) if I covered songs by guys, even if I did it close (to their version), but didn’t change the gender, it added some (other layer of meaning).
“I had no idea he was in that time or place – or that my song would reach him in the trenches. I was in a place where I’d learned how to write songs; I’d made two albums and I’d gone back to songs that meant something to me, to really get inside what made other people’s songs work.”
Colvin’s voice trails off, considering perhaps that larger implication. “It shows you the power music can hold.”
The two had met at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Mass., when Earle was doing an acoustic solo run as the world was coming to be dazzled by Colvin’s 1991 Best Contemporary Folk Grammy-winning debut, Steady On. Laughing, Earle recalls, “She reminded me of me: She’s a real folk singer.
“That’s part of it: We both came up as singer/songwriters at a time when the biggest songwriter of our era had to front a rock band to cut through. You have to get to Born In The USA, and you can see the connections. But that’s the world Shawn and I came into – and we’re both really hard-headed about being able to go out there with a guitar and tour, to maintain that skill set.”
Both write intensely emotional songs about life – Earle’s leaning more to heroic stories of the unseen, Colvin's more personally excavating – that leave listeners clearer about their own emotions and place in the world. Though he’s seemingly rugged and raw – and she is filigreed, melodic and pretty, the commonality of their ethos is undeniable.
On Colvin & Earle, the pair find middle ground with three covers – John D. Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road,” the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday,” and Emmylou Harris’ “Raise The Dead,” the latter matching the intense thrill of music with being lashed to the intensity of a bad romance – and songs co-written for the project. Both are survivors – multiple divorces, addictions – who have always found a way to come back stronger.
They enlisted producer/guitarist Buddy Miller, the roots legend who’s worked with Solomon Burke, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Carolina Chocolate Drops, the late Dr. Ralph Stanley and his own acclaimed albums. The trio decamped to Arlen Studios in Austin with Chris Ward on bass, Fred Eltringham on drums, and Guitar Town co-producer Richard Bennett on electric guitar.
“We’re both people with a lot of experiences in common,” Earle explains, “but Buddy is the real common ground. Shawn’s known him since the ‘70s, and I’ve known him since I got out of jail in ’95. It was a hard thing for him to make the time to make records, because he was still in the height of the last season of Nashville, but he did it.”
Germinated through a tour and cultivated by co-writing, the resulting album is an acoustic collection that’s warm and bright – and worn in places. Sifting through the feelings and polaroids of two restless souls with romantic hearts who are driven by music, Colvin & Earle is tempered with the self-awareness that comes with paying attention to life lived.
“You become braver and more confident,” Colvin explains on the phone from her home in Austin. “You’re less concerned about what someone thinks, and more committed to being real about who you are. And I think your instincts about what’s good for you can really drive.”
“As a songwriter, I wanted to write songs for those voices – and that group Colvin & Earle,” Earle says, calling from New York City freshly returned from London. “We’re both people who live alone, well, really we’re both single parents. My son is 6; her daughter’s 17.
“We’re both single, though there are points in our lives when we wanted this even though it’s probably not who we are. I think we all wanted to be Guy and Susanna (Clark) – and it’s not so simple as that.”
Indeed. If the storied songwriting couple seemed to have the ideal enduring romance, Earle knows there are the parts endured, and the myriad things the idealists miss. Colvin & Earle digs into the unseen.
Listening to the long gone churn’n’moan of the eerily minor-keyed “You’re Right, I’m Wrong,” it’s obvious how relationships tatter and fray, the gone and the memories being stronger than the will to say. It’s a tutorial on relationship dynamics when the pair – trading lead and harmony parts seamlessly – intones, “Every man only wants mercy, every woman only wants hope/ Every time I ever did wrong, you forgave me, and I wondered if I had enough rope...”
There is no flinching, no apology. Yet the transgressor, knowing it’s their fault, is suspended in their own loneliness and the knowledge of what has happened, the things lost and the long nights ahead.
That haunting and sense of loss permeates “You’re Still Gone,” co-written with Miller’s wife Julie over a series of years. The helpless, hopeless cloak of mourning in this case being literal.
“From an emotional standpoint, that’s the one,” Colvin says. “Julie gave me two verses and I loved them, but I didn’t have the place to come from with them. Her verses are about her brother who passed away. Then when my father passed, I knew, ‘Ahhh, there’s my way in.’ Steve didn’t know any of that, but when he wrote the chorus, I think he captured that sense perfectly.”
More than perfect, Colvin & Earle capture the fractures, foibles and contradictions of the imperfections inside all of us. As their voices weave in and out, it’s the sound of people so in sync they don’t have to choreograph every step.
“Steve’s more raw than I am, and I really like to rock a little more,” Colvin begins. “I felt I could rise to the occasion! I like rocking out, being a rhythm guitar player and harmony singer. And we wrote, which puts you on even terrain ‘cause you’re creating together.
“I learned a lot from co-writing with him, because he knows what works pretty fast; he knows what he wants and he writes fast. Steve has this motto: "Fear not the obvious." He writes deceptively stuff, stuff that’s so simple and so deep all at once because he doesn’t overthink it.”
Earle, like a shark never stops moving, never stops thinking. But he’s aware of the world around him, of the forces that move the places he lives. “People want the homeless to be invisible. Watching the number of visible homeless grow in New York, when there’s too many people for the shelters... You can’t deny that,” says the man who began the Fearless Hearts Foundation for children in homeless shelters in the late ‘80s.
“One of my neighbors in New York sleeps in the doorway of what was the Café Figaro. He’s been here as long as I have, and I don’t know him by name – but I talk to him every day. He’s part of my neighborhood.”
“The perception of homeless people,” Colvin says separately, “is they’re drunks or dangerous – and really, they’re often people who’re scared and possibly drinking to medicate. The holes in our health care system make it difficult for people to recognize they’re sick, or trying to get the right diagnosis, or help.”
Colvin, who’s written about her own struggle with depression and anxiety in her memoir Diamond in the Rough, continues, “People are scared of it. And there’s this misconception you can will yourself out of it. But it’s mentally, spiritually and emotionally crippling; somebody telling you to lighten up, that just deepens the burden... and if it was cancer, you’d be welcomed and supported.”
“Shelters can be scary places for some people,” Earle concurs. “Some have had issues with anxiety, some with real good reasons. You have 100 people sleeping in a room, people in different situations, and that can be scary. It’s about coming up with better plans to address these things.”
For Earle and Colvin, that activism includes benefits and speaking truth to their own experiences. They know the issues, like their own lives, are complicated. But it is in awareness and discussion, kinder options come into being.
Meanwhile, Colvin & Earle, like so many troubadours before them, are taking these songs and stories to the road. With a tour kicking off June 24 in Concord, Mass., the pair will criss-cross America through the fall, playing historic theaters, the occasional amphitheater and various festivals.
“We did this white-washing the fence tour,” Earle says with a laugh, “You know, you play a song, they play a song, you tell a story and a camaraderie develops. Fact is, it’s half the work, we split the expenses and there’s somebody out there with you who knows how this is done – cause it’s a whole different thing.
“I once took a guitar, a mandolin, no tour manager and a backpack across Western Europe, mostly by train, just to remind myself it can be done. We can busk, strip it down like that, individually or together. Colvin and I, we did it plenty growing up – and we both not only know how to do it, but we really enjoy it.”
photos ALEXANDRA VALENTI