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Stacey Earle: being the songwriter that she is

By Clarissa Sansone, June 2000

Black oxfords and white bobby socks cover Stacey Earle's dainty feet, which tap and slide and stomp the air in time to her guitar's rhythm. She wears a simple brown dress with a white t-shirt underneath, and a string of widely spaced pearls. A tiny hairclip keeps light brown bangs from swinging into her eyes as she bobs, happy to be singing on this stage in Lexington, Mass., on a June evening. It is the beginning of a tour that will take her around the U.S. and Canada.

Her face shoots goofy muppet looks at the audience, expressing a songwriter's joy at having arrived. Finally.

Stacey Earle has the energy, glee - and the high-pitched voice - of a teenager when she performs, constantly communicating with her fans through songs, stories, and facial expressions. She communicates with her band through the quick, meaningful glances of a wife and mother: her son Kyle Mims (the real teenager of the group, but about a foot taller than his mother) plays drums, and her husband of eight and a half years, Mark Stuart, plays lead guitar and sings harmony vocals.

Earle prefaces nearly every song by telling the story that inspired it, often ending the tale with the words, "Being the songwriter I am, I went home and wrote about it."

She has a lot to write about. The songs on her two albums - 1998's "Simple Gearle" and this year's "Dancin' With Them That Brung Me" - break the surface tension of everyday events, charting the sadness, happiness, and deep-felt emotions that inhabit the seemingly mundane. Her voice is high without being frail or thin, and her music would be at home on a back porch - a freshly painted, well-designed back porch.

"Some people keep journals; some people keep diaries: I write songs," Stacey, the younger sister of Steve Earle tells her audience.

Now nearly 40, Stacey Earle raised two sons - Kyle recently graduated from high school, and Chris, 21, is married and holds down a job while attending college - moved all over the South, waited tables and ladled lunches before she pictured herself a professional musician.

"My dreams were food in the cabinet," Earle says of her time as a young single mother raising two young children.

Unlike Steve, who "knew what he wanted to do when he was 16 years old," Stacey was 29 when she realized that what she had done as a hobby since she was 10 could turn into a career.

"I've always played the guitar around the houseÉThere was always one around," says Earle. She used to go into the bathroom, shut the door, and sing and play Steve's guitar.

"I didn't know they were listening to me," she says of her father and brother, who bought Earle her own guitar as a gift for her 14th birthday.

It was not the last time Steve offered his little sister support and encouragement.

In 1989, Stacey arrived in Nashville "not to be a star (but) to be a nanny" for Steve's three sons.

At the time, she explains, "I was sinking quickly...I couldn't make ends meet," so the siblings did each other a favor. Stacey got a job as a lunch lady - "I had the hairnet on and the whole bit," she says - where her sons and nephews were going to school. That year, Steve asked Stacey to sing back-up on his song "Promise You Anything."

"I nailed it in one take. I worked so hard on it (beforehand)," Earle says; she adds, "Because we're brother and sister, our phrasing's identical," so her vocals fit together easily with Steve's. After Stacey's recording debut on her brother's "The Hard Way," her brother told her, "Now you've got to take it around the world."

In fact, that's exactly where she did take it: "My first stage I ever stood on was an arena in Australia," she says. After being "thrown into the fire" of professional musicianship by her brother, Earle could begin to envision her own success. "For the first time, I was able to dream it," she says.

But the stars in her eyes did not blind her from the hard work needed to succeed as a songwriter in Nashville. She kept her apron on, but traded the hairnet for a pad and pencil, working as a waitress at Tony Roma's and the Sportsman's Grille, and convincing each establishment's owners to let her play her music once a week. She also performed at Jack's Guitar Bar (recently defunct), the well-known Bluebird CafŽ, 12th & Porter and the Sutler.

"I managed somehow to survive in Nashville for six years and play every night," says Earle, who eschewed the Nashville convention of maintaining a low profile as a means to success.

Earle says it took her five years to develop her songwriting abilities, and she considered the exposure to audiences great practice for a performer.

It was at one of these songwriters' nights that Earle was also exposed to "a real live Tennessean," Mark Stuart, who became her husband and one-third of Earle's backing band, the Jewels (Kyle is the second member, and Michael Webb, who plays accordian and mandolin and does not perform with the band on all their tour dates, is the third).

Of Stuart's playing, Earle says, "He plays to complement" - a statement confirmed by their live performance, where Stuart's easy country and honky-tonk riffs, deft solos and tight harmonies support Earle's vocals without overwhelming them or deferring to them.

In fact, Earle says, this "combinationÉ found the sound for Stacey Earle." Once the sound was found, Earle wanted to preserve it. She had the option to make a record on brother Steve's E-Squared label, which distributes both of Stacey's albums, but declined, because it would have turned out "a Steve Earle record instead of a Stacey Earle record."

Instead, she self-released the album on Gearle Records.

Stacey neither disregards nor aggrandizes her brother's role in her own success. After concerts, Earle says, people tell her, " 'I came to see you because you're Steve Earle's sister, but next time I'll come to see Stacey Earle.'"

The comment symbolizes the firm, but gentle, nudge Steve and his musical reputation have given Stacey's career. "I'm proud to be his sister," she states, noting that from Steve, "I've learned what not to do and what to do."

As Steve's sister, Earle acknowledges that starting out she "had the foot in the door," but goes on to note, "The name can open the door, but they're quick to tell you (if your work is) awful."

Also, when Stacey was beginning to make a name for herself, Steve was battling drug abuse and, she says, "couldn't help himself" at the time, let alone support his sister's efforts. It was her turn to help him.

"We kind of watch out for each other," she says of her relationship with her brother, who now has six years of sobriety under his belt.

"Everything's okay now, and we got through it," muses Earle when she looks back on her brother's life and her own life. It's a hard-won optimism that comes through in her songs, where, she says, "you'll always hear a positive turnaround." She has not lost the sense of awe that comes with a dream's realization. "When I look out into an audienceÉthere's not a night I don't look out in absolute amazementÉThey're here to hear me sing my songs...That's just amazing."