Their own damn selves

What’s the best piece of advice Stacey Earle ever received from big brother Steve? “He told me to sing like my own damn self,” she answers via telephone from her home in Nashville — and then, in a burst of girlish charm that’s the antithesis of her older sibling’s legendary tough-ass insolence, apologizes for cursing.

But wait. In a phone interview the next day from his Nashville office, Steve Earle sounds like a downright softy. I’ve just mentioned how I’ve noticed that he looks really happy in photographs these days, asking him if photographers are getting wittier. “Nah,” he says. “I’m just not putting so much energy into trying to look like a bad-ass anymore.”

In fact, he goes on to note cheerfully, “I’m disgustingly happy right now.”

Later, he reveals a newfound penchant for raising bonsai trees, a hobby he says is extremely relaxing. “My girlfriend tells me the only time I ever shut up is when I’m fooling with the bonsai,” he relates.

And still later, he intones softly, “I’m just stupid in love right now.” I fully expect him to burst into the chorus “You Light Up My Life,” or some such sap, at any moment.

Can this be the same six-times-married former junkie and jail inmate whose greatest joy in life once seemed to be telling anyone within earshot to f••k off?

As for Stacey, she’s singing like her damn self more than ever these days. She recently completed a tour with no less an eminence than Joan Baez. The legendary folksinger caught her as an opening act for the band Cry Cry Cry in Berkeley and immediately snatched her up for a two-month run.

“I was very afraid of it until I got there,” says Stacey. “I mean, I was white as a sheet when I got there. I was scared to death. I’m, like, ‘It’s Joan Baez.‘ For the first two nights, hardly anything would come out of my mouth behind the microphone. I think I was hyperventilating or something. But she was just so relaxing about it. She said, ‘You’re scared to death, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ But she was so kind, and there’s just not one shade of jade about her. She plays every show like it’s her very first.”

Stacey’s most recent release, last year’s Dancin’ With Them That Brung Me (on her own Gearle Records label) — the follow-up to her solo debut Simple Gearle (Gearle Records, 1998) — has been racking up accolades ever since it hit record stores. Her honeyed voice is as sweet as Steve’s is rough-hewn, and her tunes — unlike her brother’s — veer more toward the personal than the political. The disc is a gorgeous array of country/folk love songs delivered in a delicious twang that conjures up some combination of Nanci Griffith and Loretta Lynn. But don’t try to pigeonhole her, or her voice, into some arbitrary musical genre.

Asked to categorize her music, she exhibits the same fiercely independent spirit that her brother is famous for: “I would call it Stacey Earle music,” she says. “At festivals, they’ll give me this form with a box to check as to what kind of music I’ll be playing, and I’ll write in ‘Stacey Earle’ and draw my own little box.

The disc, like Stacey’s touring band, is quite the family affair. Her husband, Mark Stuart, accompanies her on guitar, mandolin and backing vocals, and her son Kyle Mims plays drums and percussion. “We have our rough moments, since we spend 24 hours a day together and we’re only human,” she says about touring with family. “But it’s actually a grand thing. I get my cake and eat it, too. I know where my husband and son are every night at 10 p.m.”

Steve’s tours, too, are a bit family-oriented these days. “My oldest son is 18 and he fingerpicks better than I do, and he writes really good songs,” Steve reveals. “But he’s actually traveling with the tour this year as a guitar tech. He’s a great guitar tech. What am I gonna do? I can’t tell my kids not to go into the music business.”

The Earles grew up near San Antonio, five musical siblings with a dad who played a mean ukulele. “We weren’t exactly the Partridge Family, but we all played and sang,” Stacey remembers. “We especially liked to sing in the back seat of the station wagon and pick out tunes on this big upright piano we had.”

Steve — who first picked up a guitar at age 11 — hightailed it out of Texas as a teenager, but not before first meeting (and deeply impressing) the late, legendary dark-country bad boy Townes Van Zandt. Landing in Nashville at age 19, Earle met singer/guitarist Guy Clark in a bar, told him, “I know Townes Van Zandt,” and ended up as Clark’s bass player.

Steve gigged in bars and coffeehouses for about a dozen years before his first album, 1986’s classic Guitar Town, revealed to the world a cocky blend of outlaw country and pop hooks. It went to number one on the country charts and stayed there for 66 weeks, as well as receiving three Grammy nominations. That same year, Rolling Stone voted Steve Earle Top Country Artist.

His next three releases — including 1988’s brilliant Copperhead Road — showcased a darker, brasher, more aggressively rock-infused style that did not please the conservative Nashville music establishment, but did delight a growing cadre of die-hard fans and critics. His penchant for ass-kicking guitar licks blended with intelligent, wildly poetic lyrics about society’s outcasts, drifters and misfits — delivered with his trademark gritty, whiskey-and-cigarettes vocal prowess — earned him the moniker “the hillbilly Springsteen.”

Stacey, meanwhile, married at age 17 and promptly became a mother. The notion of a musical career never crossed her mind, she says, as she raised her kids and took waitressing jobs to make ends meet. A decade later, though, her marriage was in a shambles and she was broke and looking for a way out of Texas.

“I was just sinking,” she remembers. “And Steve had finally put out a record, so he had a little money. I called him and asked to borrow $500 to buy a car. He said, ‘What the hell kind of car can you get with that?’ But he sent me the money, and I did find a $500 car, but it got stolen the next day. So I just surrendered.”

Part of that surrender involved another phone call to her brother. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come to Nashville and get a second wind?” she remembers. “He was leaving on the Copperhead Road tour, and he needed some help with his kids and his house. But I did not come to Nashville in any form or fashion to become a star or even a musician. I came to Nashville to be a nanny for my brother’s kids.”

But, as Stacey puts it, “Steve had all these great guitars laying around his house, and I couldn’t help but pick them up and start fooling around.” When Steve returned from the road, “He heard me singing and thought I was OK,” she says modestly. “And then that’s when he told me to sing like my damn self and stop trying to copy other people.”

Steve asked her to sing the duet “Promise You Anything” with him on 1990’s The Hard Way (MCA Records), a gig that had previously been earmarked for Lone Justice alumna Maria McKee. “Rolling Stone actually gave Maria credit for doing it, instead of me,” remembers Stacey with a laugh, “so that was kind of a weird big break.” Soon thereafter, she began churning out commercial songs for other performers at a Nashville publishing “factory.” Small step by small step, though, Stacey managed to carve out a niche as a performer — to her, the most important aspect of the music business. “My thing is live shows,” she gushes. “The CD is just to give people something to take home. … I write songs, and I love to perform them. I’m writing about a moment that happened to me, and the stage stuff allows me to act it out, and you get the story better. My songs are very personal, and a show allows me to bring that story to the table.”

For Steve, The Hard Way marked the beginning of the end — for a time, at least. Deeply entrenched in the kind of harrowing drug addiction that often found him disheveled and wandering the streets of Nashville, pawning his guitars for quick cash, he made one more album — 1991’s Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator — before MCA Records dropped him. “I don’t think it’s necessary to suffer to create compelling art,” he says now. “But I do think it’s necessary that if you are suffering, that comes into your work.” Apparently, his record label didn’t agree. Steve split up with wife number four, and the next four years saw him sinking deeper by the day into cocaine and heroin addiction. (He managed to get all the drugs he wanted, he told one reporter, by taking a job guarding a crack house during that time.) In 1994, he was busted during a drug deal and went first to jail, then to rehab (“They were afraid I was going to die in jail,” he remembers), where he spent some five months.

Released in early 1995 — clean and sober but still physically ravaged by his addictions — he formed his own record label (E-Squared) and released the acoustic Train A Comin’. But it was 1998’s El Corazon, the first recording for which he wrote all the songs straight and sober, that was hailed as his comeback. The Grammy-nominated disc has been widely proclaimed as his masterpiece — filled with lyrical story-songs containing nearly equal parts country, rock and bluegrass infusions. His glorious, critically acclaimed 1991 collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, The Mountain (E-Squared Records), was his first full-length foray into traditional bluegrass.

Since achieving sobriety, in fact, Steve has released five albums; written about 20 poems plus numerous haiku (“I’ve been writing a haiku a day since last February,” he reveals, “and I’m kind of glad to be on the tail end of it, because it’s taken up all my poetic energy this year”); composed a collection of short stories (Doghouse Roses, to be published in June); and written the draft of a play about Karla Faye Tucker — a Texas death-row inmate who was executed a few years ago.

“I didn’t write anything for four-and-a-half years at the end of my drug use,” he explains, “so you know, it’s amazing how much energy you suddenly have when you don’t have to wake up in the morning and find $500 worth of dope. I think it makes you look at everything a little differently, makes you do everything a lot differently. I was pretty nearly dead. So I don’t waste much energy or time now.

“Songwriting I’ll always do,” he continues, “though it may not always be the main way I express myself. I think that writing prose and writing poetry and writing a play helps my songwriting. This last record was the first that was really affected by that work, and I’m totally proud of it. I don’t think “The Boy Who Never Cried” [a fable recorded as a song on his latest disc, Transcendental Blues] would have come about if I hadn’t delved into those other areas.”

Transcendental Blues (E-Squared 2000) is indeed Steve’s most eclectic recording to date. “I wanted to write a rock record, and I did that,” he says simply. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Transcendental Blues is a glorious mix of psychedelia/Beatles/Merseybeat sounds (the fabulously jangly title track is particularly reminiscent of the British invasion), hard-core rockers, bluegrass ditties, haunting ballads and Celtic-infused jigs. In fact, Ireland has become a kind of spiritual home for Steve; its influence on this disc is unmistakable, particularly in the strains of the giddy “Steve’s Last Ramble” and the soaring “Galway Girl” (both of which feature famed Dublin accordionist Sharron Shannon). “Ireland is an amazing place for artists,” he muses. “Irish people see artists as being such a treasure — quite different from America.” In fact, much of Steve’s fiction writing and poetry has been inspired by/produced during visits to Galway, his favorite part of the country.

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