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Stacey Earle - Not Such A Simple Gearle
Stacey Earle discusses how she made the most of her "second chance" in life and carved out a career as a country singer-songwriter.
You're the little sister of one of country music's most famous hard-living stars, but you've got your own new country-folk record to promote. Understandable then if you get more than a little irritated when the topic of conversation swings towards your elder sibling. Not so with Stacey Earle. Although loving and respecting her brother Steve Earle's work, you get the feeling that she's confident enough in her own musical vision to ever feel in his shadow. In fact she refers to him casually and often throughout the interview. Sure, she's his sister but as she often points out, "He's a boy and I'm a girl - we have totally different things to say. There's no comparing us." And to some extent that's true - Stacey's songs are pared down country-folk; confessional songs about ordinary things happening to the life of the singer, while Steve's songs are often narratives on a more epic scale, with musical styles varying from his late 80's hard-rock backings, to the traditional bluegrass of his latest record. But is Stacey Earle being a little disingenuous when she claims to be just a "simple gearle" [sic] on the title track of her debut album? The hard way that led her there suggests that there is much more to Stacey Earle.
Growing up in the 60's and 70's in the Earle household saw music being made by all the family - Stacey's parents loved musicals and country music, Steve was bringing music into the house, as was her brother Mark, and car journeys often were accompanied by the sound of singing.
"We were never raised with a one dimensional type of music", says Stacey. "So when you take all that mix and people ask you what kind of music is yours then I say Stacey Earle music. It's a big mixture of country, pop, folk, maybe even a little classical. It's a big mixture of stuff I grew up with".
At this time Stacey taught herself to play using a ukulele and then one of her brother's cast-off gut string guitars and developing her inimical rhythmic style of guitar picking. She was bought her own guitar as a Christmas present when she was 16, but never harboured any real desire to go out and make music professionally.
"Steve knew at age 14 what he was going to do. He said, 'I'm going to be a singer-songwriter. I'm going to be a star'. That was his attitude. I became a mother at 17 and so I didn't even think about that. I always played the guitar at home and sang, but I wasn't able to dream that. When you're a mother, and then becoming a single mum, things like that are a fantasy. So I guess you're not allowed to dream like that. I basically worked all the time, but played and sang at home. I didn't even think of playing music for a living until I was 29 years old. The only reason that happened was that I ended up in Nashville to be Steve's nanny."
Steve Earle was going through a divorce at that time and was just about to head out on his Copperhead Road Tour and needed someone to look after his own two boys. The house was full of guitars and Stacey took the opportunity to play them. One day, when her brother was back from touring, he overheard her playing her guitar and singing and offered her the chance to sing on his album The Hard Way.
"I got to sing on 'Promise You Anything' and he asked me to go on the road with him. The first time I stood on a stage was in an arena with thousands of people in Australia in Sydney. So I wasn't able to be afraid of anything. When I came home and tackled Nashville and those smaller stages, that part of the fear was over. There was a different pressure to face being the frontman, it is different to being a sideman. I was half-way there because, one, I had some stage time and two, it was incredible stage time. I was thrown into the fire. Most people get on a small stage and work their way up. My first stage was an arena."
After returning from the tour her brother made a comment on her voice which changed the way she sang. "We were sitting round the table like you do and I was playing the guitar? He just walked past and said 'Sing like your damn self'".
Was she subconsciously imitating someone else at this time, I wonder? "Maybe I was," she replies. "But not only that, I was singing really low. I didn't know what my range was. I didn't know all the technical things and that's where my second husband Mark Stewart came into the picture about '91. I met him soon as I made the decision to stay in Nashville. And he then helped me to move my capo way up the guitar and showed me I could actually sing. Then I started to sing like I talk and that kind of came accidentally. So evidently there was a voice that was lost that I didn't know was there. It was my own. Maybe I was trying to correct myself too much because I'm pretty twangy in the way I talk. I've lived in Louisiana, Nashville... very Southern. Maybe I was fighting that. I don't know."
For the next few years Stacey paid her dues waiting on tables, performing at writers' nights, raising children and writing songs. After a while she took the bold step of setting up her own songwriters' night in order to get some more stage time and was fortunate to meet guitarist and singer Mark Stewart who became her partner in helping to run the events and later became her second husband. From the offset Stacey's ideas on how an acoustic night should be run differed from the norm in Nashville.
"I wanted people to play four songs because in Nashville you get to play two songs and you're off. I didn't want it to be somewhere were only twenty something people signed up and I'd cut the list off. I'd stay there all night so that everyone would get to play and I'd never send anyone home heartbroken. And if they messed up, I would encourage them to start over. And if they weren't singing into the mic I'd show that how to do it. 'Stay in the mike' here, 'Get a little closer' there, and teach them. So I kind of shared what I was wanting at the time and it became a little kind of community and it got to about 60 people who would come in a night and we all took care of each other and we watched each other grow. We were really careful when we plugged someone in a guitar. We had a strum and we got a really great sound from them. We'd send them off with confidence. I did it two nights a week, eventually three nights a week. One at the Courtyard Cafe, the main one at Jack's Guitar Bar. I did two of them there. The big one, which was the original one, was Wednesday Night Songwriters' Night. Tuesday Night was Tommy Tucker Sing For Your Supper and what I did was make a big pot of stew with chilli and if they sang their songs they got to eat for free. And that's a good thing for songwriters, cos half of them are starving. So they kind of got a home-cooked meal".
"What kind of music did the performers play and what standard was it?" I wonder.
Were there people you saw there who were as good as people who later made it and did you ever wonder why some people made it and others didn't?
Before releasing her own record Stacey worked as a staff writer at Ten Ten Publishing for three years, but didn't find the experience very rewarding.
She eventually worked out that there wasn't really a home for her music in Music City, USA. "Nashville just did not know what to do with what I was doing," she explains. "And I wasn't willing to change it, and it wasn't a rebellion thing - I liked what I was doing. They liked what I was doing, but they just didn't know how to market it. I had a lot of labels look at me and at the last moment they'd chicken out. I was ready for my songs to be heard. People would say to me at shows 'Do you have a CD?' and I'd say, 'No, I've been in Nashville nine years and I have no record deal'. That's when I decided I'd make my own record. My husband and I just went out and made it".
After sifting through a back catalogue of 125 songs to find the final thirteen songs for the album and spending four thousand dollars, the album Simple Gearle was produced. The CD was divided into two sides because as Stacey says: "I just love the feeling that there are two sides to a record and that's why there's the hiss." The style is a melodic, country-folk hybrid, with a low-key production, and a quirky addictive rhythmical groove, which lightens up even some of the more introspective topics. The album was only initially intended to be sold out of the trunk of her car after shows but a couple of radio stations picked up on the record and then another couple picked up on it and the production of copies grew - but it was still all homegrown. "It takes a lot of work. I don't want anybody to fantasise. Anybody can make a record. We put in 16 hours a day emailing people and making phone-calls. I'm ready to do that cos I was a mother at 17 - this is the other half of my life. I'm not saying I cheated myself, but there are some things you're going to be cheated on if you become a young parent. And that's why people should be careful - you've got to live first - but I wouldn't take it back, of course. My kids are 20 and 17 now and I now have the time to learn something new. Now I'm not only performing my art, I'm also learning a business thing."
And she seems to have the zeal of a convert when she talks about how she managed to get her name known and move out of playing the bars in Nashville. She seems to be very focused and have a positive mental attitude to the business problems encountered whilst trying to survive and flourish outside the protection (and control) of the major labels. One of her major tools in promoting herself was the internet.
"The internet is magic," she explains. "I have my own website and I answer all my email and I get tons of it. But every fan helps, so I'm going to answer every mail. That's how it all got started. When I got the CD in my hand my Dad and I called every (American Gavin Reported) radio station across the United States. We're talking almost 400 radio stations and we emailed each one individually. We went to their websites and got their main promoter guy, programme director and each DJ that would play our record. So you'd get something like 1200 addresses, and we emailed each one individually and personally. It took us three days and three nights. 'Hi, my name is Stacey Earle I have this CD out. I used to play with my brother Steve Earle...' I had to throw that in".
I wonder if she ever regretted having to do this. "I could say I was Steve Earle's sister and send them a lousy CD and it would just get slammed," she says. "It's really funny; I'd get some answers back through curiosity and they'd say it's a great CD, but then I'd have others who would come back with 'It's a great CD but its nothing like your brother's'. Well of course! Steve's a boy and I'm a girl - we have totally different things to say! There's no comparing us. I plan on letting my music grow with me. As I grow grey hair I'm sure my lyrics will grow. I don't want to be out there doing songs that are younger than I am. I want to grow old gracefully. I want to grow with my audience. We all write from our own perspectives. I'm writing from my age right now and I'm old" and she giggles. "No I'm not old, but I'm writing maturely. I'm writing like a 38 year old person. My words are pretty simple; I talk plain as day, my vocabulary only goes so far. I finished two weeks of ninth grade. I'm not Einstein but I've got a lot of common sense and that's how I got by in my life. I was street smart. I always said that I wanted my kids to be educated and to go to college because I didn't. But every parent should hope and check that their child's got common sense and street wise because that's going to be how you survive when everything goes down the drain."
I note that she seems lyrically preoccupied with losing time and wasting time and wonder if that's a result of having a second chance at 38. "Exactly. With a second chance I know what I've been dealt in this world. And you're either going to deal with what you were dealt or you're not - no matter how bad things get. You can sit around and be pissy about things, but I'm one of those people who can turn around anything. The worst of times I can turn into a positive - anybody can. My home could blow away tomorrow and I'd find something good about it. I've actually had times where you actually lie down on the couch and you get that depression and just want to sleep. I've stood up and said 'Don't do that!'. Stand up, make it happen or you'll just lay here and an hour will go by and then a day goes by. And if you don't at least try it you won't know if it will happen. You're going to get knocked down every once in a while - so you try another route. That's how I do it".
It's hard to believe that the bubbly, animated woman in front of me has ever felt crushed by depression, but the lyrics to her album help to reveal the heartaches she's suffered. Most of the songs on the album are written in the first person and I wonder how much of it is confessional. "They are confessional. The songs are written about what happened that day - the day I wrote it. They are all very true. I've cried on my guitar more times than I want".
I ask her if she has ever been tempted to write a song as a narrative in the third person. "No. I pretty much tell 'em myself. It's kind of like my diary. That's where Steve's great at writing his songs - he's a great storyteller and he's also an avid reader. My Dad's a great storyteller too. Steve can tell a story and make the fish grow really fast. That's an art. I write what I feel. It took me some time to realise that other people related to them too. So when someone starts singing your song they're singing and talking about themselves; it becomes their song and I encourage them to take it. Even the ones which make people cry, they say it was a good cry and they needed it."
Maybe Stacey Earle doesn't "make the fish grow" as well as her brother, but you can guarantee that the self-styled "Simple Gearle" knows more than a few things about life and its highs and lows, and as she sings in her song 'In My Way,' she knows exactly where she is heading.
Written by Steve Wilcock - Originally published in Triste 2