Musical Marriage

Stacy Earle and Mark Stuart bring their whimsy and wisdom to Old Town Artisans

Perhaps the best way to describe the music made by duo Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart is to say it sounds homemade rather than store-bought.

Their blending of folk, country, roots rock, blues, old-timey jug-band music and Tin Pan Alley uses real ingredients, isn't always perfectly formed and symmetrical, doesn't require high-tech processing or hermetically sealed packaging, eschews preservatives and unhealthy additives, and tastes more robust and flavorful than the mass-produced junk-food music that clogs our culture's arteries.

Earle's and Stuart's songs are fueled at once by whimsy and wisdom. They are rocking and tender, often at the same time, infused with the joy of life and being part of the human race.

Earle and Stuart will perform together next Thursday night, April 22, in the lush courtyard at downtown's Old Town Artisans.

Although they have been married for 11 years and performing together on and off for about a dozen, only in the past few years have Earle and Stuart made a pair of duo albums.

The result of their musical partnership is greater than the sum of its parts, Mark said late, last Saturday night--maybe it was early Sunday morning. The couple corresponded with this writer via e-mail after a performance in Olympia, Wash.

"Stacey plays a very percussive style of guitar, and I color it with assorted ideas. I probably bring a more polished musician approach to the table while she writes deeply passionate, personal songs. The combination seems to be more potent than the individual offerings."

They still write most of their songs apart, he said.

"We write separately most of the time, but bounce it off the other one. We've learned how to allow the individualism to live on while contributing to each other's work in a positive way. Sometimes it is a joint effort. Mostly, though, it is 90 percent one writer, 10 percent the other."

Both solo artists during the 1990s, Earle and Stuart often toured with each other anyway, one playing backup for the other.

The couple released several albums between them on their label, Gearle Records. Among these are Stacey's Simple Gearle (1998) and Dance With Them That Brung Me (2000) and Mark's Songs From a Corner Stage (1999).

At one point, though, they tried touring separately. It just didn't work. As their divergent careers found them away from each other more often than together, they were miserable.

"I'd be standing in front of all these people," Earle said, "and someone would call out, 'Where's Mark?' And meanwhile, Mark's on the other side of the country, where someone in his audience is calling out, 'Where's Stacey?' So many of our fans had never seen us apart, you know?"

They merged their acts and now share a career. They released the two-CD set, Must Be Live, a 2001 documentary of their in-concert partnership. They now tour constantly, playing some 250 dates a year.

When their first studio album together, Never Gonna Let You Go, was released last year, it immediately caught the attention of listeners and critics interested in music of depth, sophistication and humor.

It is apparent from the recording that their collaboration is among the best works by couples--such as those by Richard and Linda Thompson, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, Buddy and Julie Miller, Robin and Linda Williams, and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, to name a few. Not all of those couples are still together; not all of them are alive, but you get the idea.

Not only is Stacey's and Mark's a musical marriage, but they also both come from musical families.

Earle, you may or may not know, is the little sister of the great country-rock, singer-songwriter Steve Earle. Though all five Earle siblings played music, only Steve and Stacey do it for a living.

Her first appearance on a record was on her brother's The Hard Way (1990). Ten years later, they sang the moving duet "When I Fall" on his Transcendental Blues.

Growing up in the Earle household, in San Antonio, was a unique experience.

"It was not the average family. Our parents loved living," she said. "We took a lot of trips. And when I say trips, it was five kids and Mom and Dad in (a) station wagon driving across the United States just to go see snow or so my dad could show us what a chunk of coal looked like. We then would head for Mexico just to eat a tamale and go home."

During the early 1990s, Stacey was a single mother raising two boys (now grown), whom she moved to Nashville so she could help Steve straighten his life out. His outlaw image had extended into long-term substance abuse.

"I went to Nashville to try to get Steve's life together and my life together. He was needing me, and I was needing him," she said.

Before forming her own label and making her debut album, Stacey worked as a staff writer at the Nashville publishing company Ten Ten Music Group. Perhaps her biggest success there came when Sammy Kershaw recorded her song "For Years," which was on his 1996 CD, Politics, Religion and Her.

Mark's father led a nightclub band in and around Nashville, which Mark and his brothers played in during high school.

"We played every weekend, and did four hours of covers for $50 or $60 each," said Mark. "Steve Earle came up through more of a songwriter camp and influenced Stacey in that way."

That experience paid off well when Mark led his own bands through the 1980s and most of the '90s. He also played in Steve Earle's band in 1996-97.

Mark first remembers seeing Stacey play a solo acoustic show opening up for her brother. Months passed before he saw her again, hosting an open microphone at a Nashville bar. He ended up playing a few songs with her, after which they went out to Waffle House and stayed out until 5 a.m. They have been together ever since.

Although she and Mark have both performed with Steve Earle, Stacey has never felt she was in anyone's shadow.

"Not at all," Stacey said. "I just do what I do, and I look up to Steve and all the other greats who came before me. I learn from them. Folks sometimes, after hearing me for the first time, are surprised that I don't sound like Steve at all. I tell them, 'Well, that's because I'm a Gearle, and he is a boy.'"

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