It’s more than appropriate that Stacey Earle’s first commercial singing venture was on a record called The Hard Way. Sure, big brother Steve — who enlisted Stacey to sing harmony on the cut “Promise You Anything” — wields his fair share of power in the Nashville music world (albeit of the renegade type). But Stacey was hell-bent on making a name for herself her way.
And, yes, it was hard — at first.
Married at 17 and a mother that same year, the charmingly down-to-earth Earle relates that the notion of becoming a musician seemed such an impossible dream that it never even occurred to her until, at age 29, she found herself in financial and emotional ruin after her marriage fell apart and Steve invited her and her two young sons to live with him in Nashville. “Being in music was not even something I ever daydreamed, because it didn’t look like a possibility,” she relates by phone from her Nashville home in the soft drawl of her native Texas. “I’d been waiting tables all those years and raising my kids. … The music thing was beyond reach. I played guitar but it was strictly for my pleasure, and I sang around the house. Steve kinda calls it a Loretta Lynn story. I couldn’t even afford records. I did have a couple of artists I really liked, and I think I owned two or three records, but that was it.” Even Earle’s car radio had been broken for years.
Upon moving in with Steve, she became a nanny to his two sons and took a job in a school cafeteria (“I was one of those lunchroom ladies with the hair nets,” she relates with a laugh). But her brother’s house was filled with music and musical instruments, and soon, Stacey was entertaining thoughts that perhaps a career in music was not an impossible dream for her, after all. Steve sealed her fate when he asked her to sing on The Hard Way. “Then he told me I had to take the music around the world with him,” remembers Stacey.
Feeling more than overwhelmed, she had to learn the guitar lines for a chunk of Steve’s repertoire — in record time. “I had to go to one of his lead guitar players and in three weeks he taught me four Steve Earle records,” she says. “So I was out on the road with all these cheat notes all over the guitar. But I went around the world with him — and we’re talking about someone who’d experienced next to nothing. … I don’t belittle [my former life] because I love motherhood … and I’ve always been real proud of how I managed to keep it all intact. But it was incredible once I got out on the road. I came home and said, this is what I’m going to do. And I was allowed to envision it, finally, because I was paid pretty well on the tour. It was like, OK, I can do this. I paid all my debts off and had a little money in the bank.”
Nonetheless, the take-nothing-for-granted Earle promptly found herself another waitressing job when she returned to Nashville. “In Nashville, the joke is [that] when you want a songwriter, you yell “Waiter!,” she says. “So I did just like everybody else: I waited tables and stood in line at writer’s nights [in clubs]. I worked hard on my writing, because at first my songs weren’t great. … I’d take them to publishers, and they’d listen to them and say, ‘Oh, that’s real nice — but keep working on it.’ For five years I did that.”
Her tour money long since gone, Earle — who was finally doing scattered solo performances in Nashville clubs — wound up as a staff writer for Ten Ten Music, a publishing “factory” that churns out commercial tunes for music labels and individual artists. She learned much about the technical aspects of songwriting, but it was a deeply frustrating venture. Earle wrote her own songs early in the morning before heading to the office. “Suddenly my writing all started coming together, because I figured out what it was I needed to be saying,” she recalls. “But it was going through all those emotional things that made me realize what I actually had to say. I was writing about myself and learning, basically, to perform like myself.
“I had tried everything,” she explains about a time when her songs ran the gamut from deep country to fussy pop. “I dressed up and did the looking-over-my-shoulder shots, and all that stuff, for seven years. Finally, I just started performing the way I am. I mean, I usually wear a BVD T-shirt and a pair of tennis shoes. I put the high heels away. If I don’t wear it around the house or if it’s not me, I don’t do it.” (Brother Steve, in his inimitable style, had once said to Stacey, “Why don’t you just sing like your damn self?”)
Somewhere in the middle of this metamorphosis, Stacey met and married Nashville singer/songwriter Mark Stuart. Together they eventually formed the tiny, grassroots Gearle Records and recorded a CD, Simple Gearle — released in 1998 — which they expected to distribute from the trunk of their car at gigs (Stacey refused Steve’s offer to release the disc on his E-Squared label, but did enlist him to sing harmony on one cut, “Loafers Weep”). But, as she puts it, “The CD started kind of taking on a life of its own, and the next thing I knew people were asking to distribute it, and it kept selling a little more and a little more.” This year, she agreed to allow E-Squared to distribute the disc.
The country-folk-flavored Simple Gearle is a study in, well, simplicity from the first seconds, where we hear what sounds like a needle spinning on a scratchy ’78. It’s spare, deeply earthy and marked by a gloriously honest old-fashioned feel, right down to the markedly plain black-and-white photos on its sleeve (featuring Earle in a simple, white-cotton house dress). Earle’s sweetly raw voice (eerily reminiscent of Nanci Griffith) and flawless acoustic-guitar prowess (eerily reminiscent, at times, of her brother) are what drive the disc. But the sparse, heartbreakingly lovely instrumentation by her band, The Jewels (husband Stuart plays guitar and sings backing vocals) provides a perfect complement, complete with strains of melodica and mandolin. Stacey’s deeply personal, studiedly autobiographical tunes. She calls her heart-on-sleeve approach to songwriting “telling on myself. … I write very much from the heart. People comment on how different my style is from Steve’s. I mean, he writes from the heart: sure, but he’s a great storyteller, too. And that’s because he’s such an avid reader. I don’t read quite as much; I write about my moment-to-moment life.”
“Wedding Night,” for example, is the true-life story of the hoopla surrounding her own nuptials (“We ended up just having a house wedding, because of all the tension and stress of everyone wanting us to have a big wedding,” she relates. “And the whole time, I was just looking forward to my wedding night.”). The title track is, true to its name, an ode to the simple life (“Turn out the kitchen light/let’s sit outside tonight/I’ll be your simple girl,” she sings). “Just Another Day” — which Earle calls “the most personal and my favorite and the best song I’ve ever done” — is a bittersweet lament on the near-empty-nest syndrome. “It was written two days after my oldest son left for college,” she explains. “I looked around and it seemed like there was twice the space in the house there had been. I’d had him when I was 17, so I was a baby raising a baby, and that’s all I ever knew — having him around. I’d pull four plates from the cabinet when I needed only three, and that kind of thing. And my other son was 17 and about to leave soon [he now plays percussion in Earle’s band], so I had this great absence all of a sudden. And the song talks about the loneliness of 3 o’clock, which is when the kids usually come racing into the house. And now it’s just another day. It’s like, what do you do with that time?
“Of course, I’m doing something with it now,” she notes with marked understatement.
At the end of the day, says Earle (who’ll start recording a new CD in November), the most satisfying part of her rapidly rising career has been “being recognized on my own, for myself, for my honest approach to music.”
About that unflinching approach, Stacey says the best advice Steve ever gave her was to be unflinchingly honest in her songwriting, even at the risk of hurting others. “I was going to write a song but I thought, well, it might hurt the person’s feelings — I always worry about hurting people’s feelings — even though I wasn’t going to say their name. But he told me, you can’t worry about that … [because] you miss the chance for a great song. So I took his advice. … But sometimes it can sting a little bit, and that’s where he and I are so different.” (She often answers the inevitable question of why she’s so unlike her notoriously blunt, often-difficult brother by simply saying, “He’s a boy and I’m a girl.”)
“I don’t want to be a flash-in-the-pan — here today, gone tomorrow,” she reveals passionately. “I want to … leave something on this earth in addition to my children — who I took a lot of pride in raising, and I pat myself on the back because they’re such good boys — but the music thing is like the second half of my life, a second chance, a fantastic opportunity.”
And then some — particularly since Earle is a ninth-grade dropout (she eventually earned her G.E.D.). “I mean, now I’m running my own record label and have worldwide distribution,” the former lunchroom lady notes proudly.
“Lately, I’ve been having a [few] anxiety attacks, because it’s like, how much more fulfilled can I be?” Earle confesses about the happy turn her life has taken. “It’s a little scary. I told my oldest son, who just got married, not to have children right now — because I couldn’t handle trying to be a grandmother, too. I want to slow down a little bit, so I can enjoy this. I’m a little overwhelmed right now.”
The Haywood County Summer Arts Festival
The Summer Arts Festival runs 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 26, on the lawn of downtown Waynesville’s Performing Arts Center. Besides Stacey Earle, the music lineup includes:
• Hot Asheville ragtime boys The Blue Rags;
• Altneracountry/power-pop dynamos Farmer Not So John;
• Wild, roadhouse rockabilly-trio Billy Bacon and the Forbidden Pigs;
• Louisiana accordion diva Rosie Ledet (a.k.a. “the Zydeco Sweetheart”); and
• Fiddlin’ brothers Trevor and Travis Stuart.
Tickets are $19.95 in advance, $25 at the gate; children under 12 get in for $10.
The Summer Arts Festival is sponsored by the Haywood County Arts Council, WLOS-TV, Rock 104.9 FM and a grassroots grant from the North Carolina Arts Council. Call the Haywood County Arts Council at (828) 452-0593 or (800) 491-6803, or visit their Web site (www.haywoodnc.org/artsandculture/hcac) for more info.
What’s hot in Waynesville
The Haywood County Summer Arts Festival is far from the only fun thing happening in Waynesville this summer. Below is but a small sampling of the festivities to be found on the streets of this quaint mountain town:
• July 3: Stars and Stripes Celebration, a downtown festival featuring sidewalk sales, live music, refreshments and lots more fun for all ages, running 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
• July 9 and 23: Mountain Street Dances, offering the chance to strap on your cloggin’ and square-dancin’ shoes and enjoy an old-fashioned mountain hoedown. The dances are held in front of the Haywood County Courthouse, 6:30-9 p.m.
• July 16: Folkmoot Parade, featuring dancers and musicians from around the world parading down Main Street to the Haywood County Courthouse at 1 p.m., for the opening ceremonies of Folkmoot USA.