Come What May
Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle duet
Interviewing Steve Earle remains a lot like talking to the late Doug Sahm: Say "hello," and they're off to the races – breathlessly.
His itinerary for the next 18 months (really busy), how many fingers are on Billy Joe Shaver's hands (fewer than 10), and what channel he likes to listen to on satellite radio (the bluegrass one) all flow out unprompted.
Next up for the Texan who surprises at every turn – from bluegrass to blues, country music with metal undertones to the sweetest, most heart-wrenching ballads ever composed – he's formed a band.
"I'm in a band for the first time in my life," he announces by phone from Nashville. "I've been a solo artist my whole career. I was in a couple of bands in high school, but none of them for very long. I played bass in Guy Clark's band for 30 seconds and lost his bass."
Actually, it's just a duo with Austin's Shawn Colvin. Bet you didn't see that coming.
Beyond both singer-songwriters' popularity in Central Texas, the pairing makes perfect sense. Colvin's sung Earle's songs over the decades, including rendering his restless anthem "Someday" completely her own. She also just turned 60, and he's almost exactly one year older. They've been fighting the music business wars for almost the same amount of time with varying amounts of success.
More pointedly, Colvin's taken to sharing the spotlight of late. In 2009, the Three Girls & Their Buddy show paired her with Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, and Buddy Miller, whose onstage heart attack ended the tour. Recently, she's taken to performing with the like-minded Mary Chapin Carpenter. Two years ago, after one of their joint tours ended, Colvin approached Earle about doing something similar. The latter agreed, and in 2014 toured "Songs and Stories, Together Onstage," a run of sold-out song swaps, duets, and storytelling.
"I found I really enjoy sharing the stage with someone for the whole evening," says Colvin. "I love being a backup musician. I love singing harmony, being a rhythm guitar player, and getting entertained by another artist I admire. Touring by myself is something I do very well and it's the right thing for me, but it was a nice change to have this camaraderie and repartee with someone onstage. When I thought about who else I'd like to share that with, I immediately thought of Steve.
"After we'd been at it for a couple of weeks, Steve said, 'It sounds really good. We should make a record.' And Steve doesn't kid around," she laughs. "He got pretty specific pretty quickly about what it would look like and where we would do it. It was real immediate, so I said, 'Let's do it.'"
Earle takes a more pragmatic stance, beginning with touring together.
"You share the expenses, work half as hard, so it works out great," he laughs. "So she got me into that. And you have someone to hang out with. But making the record, which was my idea, was based on just what happened when we sang together. I don't think any of us were prepared for it. That's what the record's about – the way we sang together."
Keeping Up With the Millers
The 10 tracks on Colvin & Earle find the pair of Lone Star song transponders homing in on areas they've never ventured to before as solo artists. From their six co-writes to the four wide-ranging covers, the album coheres as a complete collaboration. Any skeptics in their respective fan bases will be quelled on the very first cut, "Come What May," a song of hope ringing with guitars and semisweet harmonies.
"It was the first song we wrote together and I was scared," admits Colvin. "But we had the beginning of a musical idea. We got together in my hotel room in Nashville for two days, wrote that song, and that's when I thought, 'This is going to work.'
"I love that song, but I think we wrote even better ones after that."
"I knew it would work from the very first one," agrees Earle. "I've never written anything with anybody that was equal to this. That's one reason I don't do it very often. Most of the time when I write with people, I leave them in the dust and never do it again. It's just one of those things. I've done it since I was a teenager and I have a work ethic when it comes to doing this. I'm pretty fast.
"There's probably less songs than the fingers on Billy Joe Shaver's hands that I've done this with. But she could keep up. She could write melodies. It's so seamless."
"It's never easy for me to write songs," counters Colvin. "But Steve's a machine. Yes, he has a strong personality, so because I'm kind of a reluctant writer, was I worried that I might get lost in the shuffle? I was, but it was really a pretty easy process. We clicked. Musically we were on the same page in terms of melodies. Chord structures weren't difficult. We shared the lyrical duties pretty evenly and were just compatible co-players."
The album's producer, Buddy Miller, goes back several decades with Colvin. They played together in New York's Buddy Miller Band, an early-Eighties country outfit, and when Miller left the city to be with his future wife Julie in Austin, Colvin took over the band's reins. The two remained friends, but for Earle, teaming with Miller was a chance to collaborate with someone he'd only managed to work with in a sideman capacity.
The results are reminiscent of two Earle LPs from the late Nineties, I Feel Alright and El Corazón, straight-ahead roots-rock albums with lots of mandolin, guitar, and some of his most enduring songs. They also featured Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris. Colvin & Earle bears the rough edges and bold harmonies that Miller made as a solo artist around the same time, and its most touching moment, closer "You're Still Gone," was an idea Julie Miller passed on to Colvin, who showed it to Earle, who finished it.
"I admire Julie so much," says Colvin. "She writes from the heart. It's deep stuff. Her verses inspired me to write about my father who had passed away. Then I discovered her beginnings with the song was her brother who passed away. I brought it in to Steve and he wrote the chorus 'You're still gone' without knowing any of that.
"So it was almost an evenly split, three-people co-write."
Feel-Good Hit of the Summer
Covers providing webbing between the originals on Colvin & Earle will garner equal attention for their brazenness and familiarity: the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday," Nashville Teens' "Tobacco Road," Ian & Sylvia Tyson's "You Were on My Mind" (made famous by the We Five in 1965), and Emmylou Harris' "Raise the Dead."
"I brought in 'Tobacco Road' and 'Raise the Dead,'" notes Colvin. "I've always wanted to record 'Raise the Dead.' I thought it would be a good duo song with the line 'I'll never get out of your love alive.' I'd long thought, 'That's great.'
"And I was kind of on a tear listening to the Sixties on SiriusXM satellite radio. When the Nashville Teens' 'Tobacco Road' would come on, I'd think it was a great duo song. I could hear Steve Earle being a part of it."
"The covers are fantasy camp," follows up Earle. "Two people the same age who grew up on the same records. We were playing on instruments and committing to tape songs that we started out playing on tennis rackets when we were growing up."
Anyone who knows anything about Colvin and Earle knows the idea of them writing a bubbly pop song titled "Happy and Free" seems pretty far-fetched. Since the whole project comes as a surprise, however, anything's possible.
"I'm glad you think of it as a pop song because I wrote it that way," asserts Earle. "It might have come out countrier than I wanted, but I'm okay with it. I just wanted the music to suit the sentiment, which is everybody wants the same thing and it's pretty simple. We really don't need very much. I'm really talking to myself when I write songs like that."
"It's something I would never have written," laughs Colvin. "It's the feel-good song of the record!"