By Holly Gleason

“The land lady just realized what these guitars are worth, and she said she’d pay for it,” Steve Earle explains, getting back on the phone after directing an installer where to put the touchpad for his new alarm system. “I lived here for a while and nobody even thought about it, then she did. And now …”

Perhaps the landlady was just more concerned by the storied tales of Earle’s past. But given his emergence as an Americana pioneer, his underpinnings as a true troubadour and his fairly consistent output over the last two decades, the former troublemaker is more likely to be arrested at a protest these days than for any kind of narcotic thuggery.

A year after his divorce from singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, Earle returned to the other side of his Houston folkie roots with the acoustic-driven Texas and Chicago blues homage Terraplane, featuring the Mastersons. Now he’s got Colvin & Earle, an album of duets with acclaimed songwriter Shawn Colvin that considers the ravages of the rambling life.

Both artists are at the core journeymen folkies. In spite of Colvin’s pop success with three Grammys — 1991’s Best Contemporary Folk for Steady On and 1998’s Record and Song of the Year for “Sunny Came Home” — and Earle’s various paths since Guitar Town made him a cultural voice to be reckoned with in 1985 and Copperhead Road made him a rock fringe force in 1988, they both came from a school of one voice, one guitar.

“I really didn’t play with a band ‘til I was 30,” Earle offers, as the workman drills in the distance. “I fronted a couple bands in high school, but really that wasn’t what I did. Then I couldn’t afford to have a band, so I stayed with that coffeehouse me-and-the-guitar approach.”

And it was by stripping things back to that bare-bones approach that the two seasoned touring and recording artists began their journey as Colvin & Earle. This was not a duo hatched out of a test-tube marketing alliance or record label focus group, but rather one artist reaching out to another with the simple idea of hitting the road just for the sake of the songs.

“We had a trial run,” Colvin says late one afternoon from her Austin home. “I suggested we go do some gigs, just to play. I thought Steve’d be a good match. I’m a big fan, and it wasn’t necessarily to make a pairing, but we could see what the music did. He’s more raw than I am, and I really like how he has this rock thing, even acoustic. I felt I could rise to the occasion!”

She pauses, taking stock of the notion that led to the string of dates. “I like rocking out. I knew the material — and I love being a rhythm guitarist and a harmony singer. To me, just the idea of the dates was great.”

Earle calls their initial run together a “white-washing-the-fence tour.”

“She talks about the camaraderie, but really, it’s half the work — we split expenses,” he explains matter of factly. But of course, there was a lot more to it than that.

“You’ve got someone doing the same thing you’re doing who ‘gets’ it,” he continues. “And we’re both really hard-headed about being able to go out there with a guitar and do that (entertain people), to maintain that skill set. I once did a one-backpack tour of Western Europe, mostly by train. One guitar, one mandolin, no tour manager, just to prove I still could. Colvin and I, we can busk, individually or together. We did that sort of thing coming up. So you get up onstage, you play a song, they play a song, you tell a story and a rapport develops. We started just doing the dates, then we started talking about making a record, then we started figuring out how to make a record.”

* * *

How they made a record is both an odd convergence and the reality of journeymen musicians four decades into their craft. Looking for common ground, they landed on roots icon Buddy Miller. As Colvin says, “Buddy said, ‘Steve moved towards Shawn a little bit, and Shawn moved towards Steve a little bit.’ But I think we both moved towards Buddy, too.”

Colvin had known the dusty, old-leather-chair voiced Miller from her bluegrass and folk days in Greenwich Village in the ‘70s. Earle had teamed with Miller shortly after getting out of jail in 1995.

When Colvin knew Miller, they were bright-eyed kids struggling to make a mark as artists — and for a moment, she was even the singer in a band Miller and good friend Jim Lauderdale were putting together. Earle, always one to have bands long on musical muscle, knew he needed a guitarist who could handle the ballast of the songs he’d cut with the Dukes, but also had the experience for the bluegrass and folk songs he’d written for Train A-Comin’.

Twenty years later, all three parties had ascended. If Miller’s not as wildly known, he is in many ways the most busy. Beyond production work, which has included Richard Thompson, Solomon Burke, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Robert Plant, Devil Makes 3 and Patty Griffin, he is the musical supervisor of Nashville, Oscar winner Callie Khouri’s ABC series — now moved to CMT — about the country music business.

“It was hard for him to make the time,” Earle explains, “because he was still in the height of that last big season of Nashville. Those schedules are always changing, and getting blocks of time isn’t that simple.”

Fortunately, they finally found just enough of a window to make things work, recording the record over a matter of days at Austin’s Arlen Studios. Beyond Earle, Colvin and Miller’s multi-instrumental prowess, they enlisted a core band of guitarist Richard Bennett, drummer Fred Eltringham and bass player Chris Wood, with help from longtime Duke Kelly Looney.

“Chris almost played on Washington Square Serenade, but he had something else going on,” Earle says of the line-up. “He’s a monster playing with a real live upright bass. And I suggested bringing Richard in because I have to do that every few records. He was the co-producer on I Feel Alright, and he understands the sounds.”

* * *

Although Colvin & Earle marks the formidable duo’s first official collaboration on record, their mutual respect and kinship in song goes back long before they even hooked up for the aforementioned tour — and truly, before they ever actually met each other.

Colvin recorded Earle’s “Someday” on her third album, 1994’s Covergirl, which found her mining many of the covers she’d been performing live. Alongside Talking Heads, Bob Dylan, Sting and Tom Waits, Earle’s song about a restless gas station attendant in a nowhere town became a cornerstone of the project.

“It was the first Steve Earle song I ever heard,” Colvin recalls of the choice. “I played it on the record player, over and over again. I grew up in a teeny little town in South Dakota. I didn’t pump gas, but I could so relate to the teeny-weeny hometown and thinking there had to be more. And The Wizard of Oz reference …”

Somewhere in Nashville, Earle was spending his time in another kind of altered reality. Having found himself declared “an important artist,” he’d made a left into hard addiction — and the spiral (which he’s referred to as “my vacation in the ghetto”) was in full bore. At a time when crack and smack were the divining rods, Colvin’s recording of his song was one of the only flickers of light suggesting his music mattered.

“She recorded it when I was pretty much homeless,” recalls the man who made rebellion a franchise in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “I had a house in Fairview, but there wasn’t any dope there. So I was living on either side of the Pike — between Murfreesboro Road or Lafayette on either side of Nolensville Pike. I lived in my car sometimes — ’til I traded it to some dealers for a hit of dope, and they got it impounded. Guess they were doing a deal, got busted and I lost my car.”

Around Nashville, he was talked about in whispers, people waiting for the news he’d died. But when those conversations happened, talk would also turn to the music. Music was something he was so good at, and surely the music would save him.

“During that time, Emmy(lou Harris) recorded ‘Guitar Town’ and Shawn did ‘Someday,’ and during those days, those were the only signs of light, the only connection to what I’d been,” Earle says.

Colvin, touring at the pace an artist coming into their own, had no idea. Laughing gently, she considers the timing and serendipity of the choosing, because sometimes without knowing, we can make a difference. “I had no idea he was in that time (of his life) or place,” she says, “or that my song would reach him.

“For me, I was in a place where I’d learned how to write songs, and I’d cut my teeth on doing versions of songs that I thought were setting the bar,” she continues. “My version didn’t really stray far from his, because I thought that if I covered a song by a guy, even if I stayed close to the original, it was so different, the change in perspective coming from a woman. ‘Naïve Melody,’ that Talking Heads’ song, I really changed up, but ‘Someday’ didn’t need it.”

But Earle did. Just as important as the cut, though, was how much he respected the emerging singer-songwriter. “I knew her before that,” he says. “I’d started doing solo tours, while I was making the rock records. She opened for me at the Iron Horse in North Hampton, Massachusetts. She reminded me of me. She was a real folk singer, and I remembered that.

“We both came up as singer-songwriters at a time when the biggest songwriter of our era had to front a rock band to punch through,” Earle continues. “You know, you get to Born in the USA, you can see the connections. Yet, there she was, stubbornly playing with her guitar.”

* * *

Shawn Colvin on writing and recording with Steve Earle: "Steve has this motto: Fear Not the Obvious! It’s deceptively simple stuff, that’s not so simple." (Photo by Alexandra Valenti)

Shawn Colvin on writing and recording with Steve Earle: “Steve has this motto: Fear Not the Obvious! It’s deceptively simple stuff, that’s not so simple.” (Photo by Alexandra Valenti)

Recognizing the overlap from their tour, talk between songs turned to talk about songs, which turned to — as you’d expect with people this creative — new songs. Earle laughs at the obvious, then says, “We’re both people with a lot of experience in common. We’re both people who live alone. Well, we’re both single parents: my son is 6, her’s is 17 … That’s a big part of what drives us.

“And there are points in our lives when we wanted this, even though it’s not who we are,” he continues. “My therapist says I pick people who I can’t have. I don’t know, except the only thing I ever wanted was to spend the rest of my life with someone. We all wanted to be Guy and Susanna (Clark) — and that wasn’t so easy, either.”

That vein of conflict, of needing to go, of wanting the stability, of not being able to be what was expected, is part of what makes Colvin & Earle such an intriguing collection of songs. Unflinching and honest, the album takes stock of the rising tides and storms that are part of relationships. From the breezy, Beatles-flecked “Come What May” to the pensively Warren Zevon via Ensenada “The Way That You Do” to the slightly Merseybeat “You Were On My Mind,” the pair got real about the knots, conflicts and rubbed raw spots of love, as well as the allure that keeps the sexes coming back to each other.

“If the co-writing had been awkward, who knows?” Colvin says of the creative process. “But it wasn’t, and being in the studio, we found this rhythm. We all came to play these songs, and that’s what we did. You know, something like ‘You’re Right (I’m Wrong)’ sounds really tortured, but it was a blast!”

Indeed, that dissonant, half-spoken song serves as the climax of the record. In the tension and the rush to escape, strings sweeping through the dark drone, the seeds of destruction bear fruit:

“Out past the edge of the believing, too late for turning back now
I can still hear the door slam while I’m leaving,
I’ll always remember that sound
Don’t remember who pulled the lever, don’t remember who made the call
Maybe the truth is neither one of us loved anybody at all
You’re right, I’m wrong, I knew all along …
I’m wrong you’re right, I miss you tonight.” 

There in the eye of the cyclone is the essence of can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. But in the fraught, the arrangement, the flat vocal delivery, and the madness of the conflict comes into stark focus, details pinning how it is against the self-destructive self-propulsion and recognition of missing what you couldn’t get away from.

Of course, that kind of combustion may work for make-up sex, but can be corrosive in real life — or the studio. After deciding to write together, Earle and Colvin unknowingly mined truths neither would have arrived at separately.

“As you get older, you become braver and more concerned,” Colvin says of the process. “You’re less concerned about what others think, and you trust your instincts about what’s good for you. Somebody would have a title, a riff, a melody — and we’d punt from there.

“Steve has this motto: Fear Not the Obvious!” she continues. “It’s deceptively simple stuff, that’s not so simple. I learned a lot from co-writing with him. He knows what works pretty fast, and he writes fast — and he doesn’t overthink.”

“Musically, we get along very well ‘cause we come from the same places,” Earle says. “We only butted heads once on making the whole record.”

Fittingly, the song in question — “You’re Still Gone,” a three-way co-write with Julie Miller — is in many ways the most vulnerable song on the record.

“From an emotional standpoint, that’s the one that’s the most raw,” Colvin says. “Julie gave me two verses years ago, and I loved them, but didn’t know what to do with them. Then my father passed away, and I went, ‘That’s where I can put all this.’ This one song became the place, because those first two verses are about her brother who’d passed away. And Steve didn’t know any of that, but he listened and we picked it up.”

“There were two verses from Julie and two by Shawn when we started,” Earle remembers. “The first verse, which is Julie’s, we kept, and the second is Shawn’s, and I wrote the chorus. That’s where we all came together.”

Well, except for the matter of one little part. According to Earle, Colvin wanted to bring a bridge into the song, and he just wasn’t having it.

“I was very against bridges at the time, and I reared up on my hind legs,” he says. But the ensuing clash was a short one.

“It lasted 45 seconds,” Earle continues. “We went on and recorded it … without the bridge.”

The pause on the other end of the line serves as a question that doesn’t need to be stated about the force of Earle’s personality. Without prodding, he continues unapologetically, “I don’t feel any need to be polite (in those situations). With creativity, it’s its own thing — and you have fight for it. You have to fight for it with all you’ve got.”