By Alan Sculley
STACEY EARLE may have a brother, Steve Earle, who is one of country music's most gifted and distinctive talents. But don't get the idea that she intended to follow in her sibling's footsteps when she arrived in Nashville in 1990. At the time, brother Earle--who performs at the Luther Burbank Center on Dec. 2 as part of an all-star country Landmine Free benefit concert--was going through a divorce and trying to figure out how she would build a new life for herself and her two sons. She was broke and more than a little desperate.
"It didn't even cross my mind," Earle says of the notion of playing music. "That's not what I came here [Nashville] for. I came to be a nanny. I was really in a bind. I called Steve up and asked to borrow money for a car. He sent it to me--it was $500. You can imagine what kind of car it was. But as bad of a car as it was, somebody stole it the next morning. So I called him back up to tell him what happened. He said 'Well, come to Nashville, bring the kids.' He was leaving on the Copperhead Road tour and needed someone to stay with his boys. He was getting a divorce. I went to Nashville to be a nanny, not a star."
IN NASHVILLE, Earle landed a job at a local cafeteria and eventually joined her brother on tour as a back-up guitarist. Since then, she has built a viable do-it-yourself career. Taking to the road on a series of solo tours that eventually took her around the United States and to Europe, Earle began building a following. She really wasn't thinking about doing a CD--until popular demand dictated otherwise. So she recorded Simple Gearle, taking just three days to finish the project.
"When I made the record it was strictly to sell on the road because I'd been playing these shows and people would go home disappointed. At the end of the night they didn't have anything to take home," Earle says of the CD, originally self-released in October 1998 and recently reissued. "That's what it was about. Next thing you know I sent it to radio stations and they started playing it, and then distribution people started getting wind of it. And I was selling it over the Internet."
After a few months, record labels began contacting her to release the record, but Earle declined, choosing to keep Simple Gearle on her own record label and distribute it through E-Squared Records, an independent label co-owned by her brother.
The reason for Earle's success comes back to her songs. The Simple Gearle CD proves that songwriting talent runs in her family. But unlike her brother's music, which has often been as hard-rocking as it is country, the songs on Simple Gearle fall much closer to acoustic folk. What helps set Earle's music apart from artists working a similar terrain are her conversational, emotionally direct lyrics (a strong example is "Losers Weep," which recounts the emotional struggles of a teenage mother), and, even more to the point, her gift for indelible melodies. Such Simple Gearle songs as "Wedding Night," "Next Door Down," and the title track are among the album's more striking musical moments.
"To me, the melody is half the song," Earle says. "If you don't have a melody, then you don't have a song. I love melodies. I love good, good melodies. I love the pretty melodies. And some of it might be pop-influenced because of my generation. It's what's fed to you all along. Like right now, I'm wanting to tamper a little bit with the blues, but [I'm told] I can't do it unless I quit smiling while I sing it. And I loved Motown growing up. That was one of my favorites."
Because of the acoustic instrumentation and Earle's clear, homespun voice, she frequently draws comparisons to folk artists Nanci Griffith and Iris Dement. Earle is flattered to be mentioned alongside those critically acclaimed artists, but feels her music doesn't really fit the folk--or any other--genre.
"I call it Stacey Earle music," she says. "There's something there for everyone. And that's where the industry has a little trouble with it. They loved what I did, but didn't know how to categorize it. There's something there for everyone. I was raised on a big variety of music. So it's just whatever the melody is for me that day, what [I play] on my guitar, whatever's going on in my life. I pretty much tell on myself. Those are the stories. I'm not the kind of writer who's a storyteller. Steve's great at telling stories. He's a storyteller. He's an avid reader; he researches, and he loves to tell stories. And my dad's like that. I wasn't a big reader.
"But I just kind of tell on myself, and in turn, people in the audience relate because everybody goes through the same old stuff.
"AND YOU CAN hear on the record when I'm sad; you can hear when I'm happy or just when something silly is going on," Earle says. "It's always got a positive [side], because that's how I always survived. I really had a rough time in raising two kids by myself and turning things around. And that's how the songs always end up. I'm going to turn it around positive somehow. That's basically where the music comes from. It wasn't influenced by anybody. I couldn't afford records, so I couldn't be influenced.
"That's why I tend to break the rules. I didn't know any better."
Stacey Earle performs Sunday, Dec. 5, at 7:30 p.m. at the Powerhouse Brewing Co., 268 Petaluma Blvd., Sebastopol. The show is a benefit for KRCB-FM. Tickets are $15. 585-8522.
From the December 2-8, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.