It’s funnily appropriate that singer/songwriter Stacey Earle’s first serious exposure to the music biz would be as a member of her older brother Steve’s band The Dukes on a major world tour.
That experience (which found Stacey playing acoustic guitar and singing alongside the likes of pedal steel ace —and eventual Dylan sideman— Bucky Baxter and future Webb Wilder bassist Kelly Looney) was documented on Steve’s notoriously intense ‘91 live LP Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator.
However, it’s the title of the 1990 LP that tour was designed to promote (The Hard Way) that ironically presaged the struggle this talented lyricist and storyteller would face in launching her own solo career in the wake of her sibling’s highly publicized struggle with substance abuse.
A chance 1992 meeting with seasoned session and road guitarist Mark Stuart resulted in wedding bells and a lucrative artistic partnership that has resulted in six low-key indie albums of beautiful acoustic Americana, all of which have been released on the couple’s own label, Gearle records.
Initially promoting themselves as solo artists with a vested interest in each other’s careers, on their last three CDs, Stacey and Mark are billed as a duo, for in many respects, it is in that format in which both of their talents seems to shine brightest.
Whether opening for such folk, country and rock stars as Joan Baez, Willie Nelson, or Richard Thompson, being showcased at major concert events like The Newport Folk Fest, or headlining their own shows at clubs, listening rooms and coffeehouses here and abroad, Stacey and Mark have earned a devoted following based less on her genealogy than on their uncanny ability to read each other’s minds and moods.
These two mesmerizing artists translate those subtle shifts into compelling, beautiful ballads that hover somewhere between the folk, rock and country genres. Their delicate, brittle vocal harmonies seal the deal, and set them apart from the vast majority of current acoustic duos.
Their upcoming show in Bloomingdale at Randy Wood’s Concert Hall (just a few minutes’ drive from downtown Savannah) is co-sponsored by Tiny Team Concerts and Connect Savannah, and marks the first time this acclaimed act has played our area. Both Stacey and Mark spoke to us by phone from their home in Ashland City, about a half-hour from Nashville.
Stacey, when you signed onto that infamous 1990 Dukes tour, is it true you’d never played in front of strangers before?
Stacey: That was the first time I’d ever stood on a stage. I’d played and sang so much that I’d worked probably as many hours as most folks who gigged for a living, but that was in front of my children at home. Maybe it was not knowing what to expect that made the act of walking out on that stage so easy. When it all went down, everyone involved was worried I’d freeze up and choke — but when the stage lights went up, I loved it, and I’ve never turned back. It was very different from the kind of situation I’m in now. That’s what you call a trial by fire! It was the epitome of rock ‘n’ roll and rock ‘n’ roll excess. The band was rockin’ and Steve was higher than a kite.
Mark: One of the big differences between Stacey and myself is our backgrounds. She didn’t go through the process that most of us do as young musicians, playing sports bars and rowdy beer joints.
Stacey: A lot of people might think I never paid my dues, but they’d be very wrong. I just I did it backwards! (Laughs) After that tour, Steve was very ill and things had gotten to the point where he had to take a break and try to get himself together. I had to start over fresh at the end of the line like everybody else. Waitin’ around and trying to play open mic nights at The Bluebird and Douglas’ Corner. That’s where Mark and I met, at a songwriter’s night. Doing that tour, and being known as Steve Earle’s sister opened a few small doors in Nashville, but nothing really came of that. I had to hit that town hard and play in the corners of bars. But they had to cater to songwriters. I didn’t know any popular covers.
To what do you attribute your success?
Stacey: Mark and I have literally played music together every single day for the last fifteen years. Our two guitars are sitting right next to each other here in the house. That’s why we officially became a duo after a few years. When two people stand on a stage night after night, there’s a magical sort of bond that forms. It can’t come about any other way, and it can’t be undone.
Mark: I’m not comparing us to something as great as The Beatles, but when you think of the team of Lennon and McCartney —and even George Harrison— before the world knew what they sounded like, those guys had spent an incredible amount of time together as people. They’d played a lot of dates in front of all sorts of crowds. They’d written together. That’s where that chemistry came from, and why it was so special. Now, me and Stacey have things we do with our own voices and guitars, without even thinking about it. It’s pretty unique, and we didn’t realize until a couple years ago that we’d tapped into that. People hear it in our shows, but I don’t think we’ve ever been able to fully capture it on tape.
Stacey: That can sometimes get overlooked in the process of expanding on things in the studio. People always ask us which CD sounds the most like the
show they just saw, so I believe the next one will be cut just like you’d hear us in concert.
Well, often in arranging, less can be more.
Mark: That’s our motto for sure. People who’ve heard us play live always notice that we take advantage of the space in music.
Stacey: People said right from the beginning that the best stuff Mark plays is the stuff he doesn’t! (Laughs)
Mark: (Laughs) Well, I’m not sure what the hell they mean by that, but I am proud of it. (Laughs) I think too many guitarists —and musicians in general— don’t understand that approach. If there aren’t enough peaks and valleys in a song, then it becomes boring. It’s a balance of dynamics.
Do you share much of Steve’s fanbase?
Stacey: Some, but not much. He’s gone through so many stages that he’s earned different types of fans. We get some who liked his Down From The Mountain stuff, and sometimes we’ll draw the diehards.
Mark: There’s a certain type of Steve fan who likes the big, rock thing. Some of them have literally never been in a listening room environment, or seen an acoustic Americana concert. When they show up, it can be a real out-of-left-field experience.
Stacey: We’re on the folk circuit, so sometimes we’ll play like a Universalist Church, and I’ll look out and see three or four guys in big leather jackets with chain wallets and long beards, and you’ll just know they’re Copperhead Road fans. They’ve got their hands in their laps, lookin’ a little confused. Then when they find out the place doesn’t sell beer, they start to get uncomfortable, and you never see them again. (Laughs)
Despite record industry woes, there seems to be a growing demand for intimate live shows. Have you found that to be the case?
Stacey: Yes, but you have to remember, those type of shows don’t pay a lot of money. Your career depends on your CD sales. Now, thank goodness, most folks who come to these shows really do support you and buy CDs, but I’m really scared that at some point, everyone will have an iPod and we simply won’t be selling any records. When that time comes, we —and all our peers— won’t be able to even make albums. It’ll go back to the 45 format of the ‘50s, and people will just download the single. I’m not bashing iPods, but people should buy the CD and then put it on their iPods. Don’t let the albums die. Those things are cool! I like the sound of albums — especially vinyl albums, hiss and all. (Laughs)
Anything else you’d like to tell our readers?
Stacey: Let ‘em know our shows are child-safe! We folk it, we rock it, we try to offer something for everyone, including kids. So they don’t need to hire a baby-sitter. Plus, if they’re worried about missing the Superbowl, we’ll listen to our car radio between sets so we can keep ‘em updated on the score. Quarterly. (Laughs)
Tiny Team Concerts and Connect Savannah present Stacey Earle & Mark Stuart at 7 pm, Sunday at Randy Wood’s Concert Hall (1304 E. Hwy 80, Bloomingdale, Ga.). Tickets to this ALL-AGES show are $15 in advance or $18 cash at the door, and can be found at Primary Art Supply, Silly Mad CDs and Annie’s Guitars & Drums, or charged online at www.tinyteamconcerts.info. For more information, or to sample music: www.staceyearle.com. For directions to the venue, call 748-1930.