12 June 2001 - This is a story like soaps you've seen on afternoon
television about a young mother struggling against poverty, sickness and
drug addiction to become a country music star; but better.
Earle made her first record at the age of 38 and her second, "Simple
Gearle," was released earlier this year after she turned 40.
Becoming increasingly worried that her late start did not leave her much
of a shot, she'd been looking in the mirror and worrying that her age
was showing. But having two children when she was still in her teens and
not starting to write songs until she had something to write about
turned out to be an advantage. Anyway, she doesn't worry about it any
Earle's life as a singer/songwriter goes back to early
1990, when she was a 28 year old single mother of two young boys trying
to cope with hard times as a waitress in San Antonio. When her utilities
were cut, she pretended to the kids that they were camping out. "Get
the candles," she said. "We're going to have a party."
Earle always could turn just about anything negative to positive.
her car was totaled, she called her big brother Steve, a successful
singer/songwriter in Nashville, to borrow $500 to buy another one. Steve
Earle had a "new-country" hit album, "Guitar Town."
He sent the money, she bought the car, and it was stolen that very same
afternoon. She could find nothing positive in that.
At the end of her tether, in
tears, she called her brother again. He invited her to bring the kids
and live with him in Nashville for awhile. They were always really
close, their father was an air traffic controller and they had grown up
moving around. The only problem was that, at the time, along with David
Crosby, Steve Earle had one of the most famous and destructive drug
habits in the music business.
Living with an addict is a
roller-coaster. In Nashville, Stacey found herself being nanny to
Steve's two kids in addition to her own. They each had a different
mother, so she was dealing with him, his habit, his two ex-wives, all of
their children and her own ex- husband. "People called me the
biggest co-dependant person in the world," she says. "I call
this started happening very fast. She got a job as "the lady with
the hair-net" serving lunch in the same elementary school her sons
attended. They could arrive and depart together. She spent her spare
time hanging around the house with Steve's guitar collection for
company. With no musical training, she memorized how the chords looked
when fingered on the fretboard, and she wrote her first song, "Afraid
of the Dark."
Photo : Marc Tschida
She began to sign up for "writer's
nights," amateur nights, at Jack's Guitar Bar. This involved
getting on line at 4 PM with her kids on their way home from school. The
door opened at six. She'd go in and sign up and have just enough time to
rush home, feed the kids supper, pick up the baby sitter and get back to
sing at eight.
Her intimate voice had an expressive twang, her
style was somewhere between country and folk, and her songs were getting
increasingly personal. The black and white art work on "Simple
Gearle" recalls Walker Evans depression-era photographs, and there
are nostalgic vinyl LP surface-crackles between tunes.
her present husband and musical partner Mark Stuart performing songs of
his own at Jack's. She says they "haven't spent a day apart in
eleven years." He's some years younger than her but she looks much
younger than 40. She calls him, "my knight in shining armor, but
instead of a horse he had a guitar." They still tour and record
together. He provides musical knowledge. Record companies could never
figure out a way to market her, so she releases her own records, sells
them on her web site www.staceyearle.com
, and through an international distribution system she built and
maintains herself. The twenty to thirty CDs sold after each concert are
In 1990, when Steve Earle came off the road (he
was what is called a "functioning addict") to record his next
album, "The Hard Way," he overheard Stacey singing around the
house and asked her to sing backup. She was afraid to look stupid, or
waste precious studio time by having a seizure. She was still taking
medication for epilepsy. Before the boys were born she'd had her own
fling with drugs. "Drug and alcohol addiction runs in my family,"
she explains. "But what stopped me was once when I got high I had
like 30 seizures. Epilepsy saved me. I was lucky, I was sick. And then I
got pregnant and that was the end of my drug problem."
other musicians called her "a natural" in the studio. Steve
offered to take her on his next tour as rhythm guitarist and backup
vocalist if she could learn the material on his four albums in six
weeks. She practiced and memorized and brought her ex-husband in to take
care of the children. They had agreed that they would never let their
kids be brought up by a stranger: "We brought them into this world,
we were not going to abandon them." To make a six-week story short,
they opened in Sidney, Australia, and performed her first song "Afraid
of the Dark" for the first time during the last show in Los
Angeles. Then came ten years "beating it to death" in the
Nashville music business. Being Steve Earle's sister would get her in
the door. Publishers patted her on the back and said, "keep writing
Steve, who was starting to kick at the time,
was still unpredictable. He was afraid he wouldn't be able to write any
more if he stopped using. Stacey felt she had to protect her kids from
him: "But Steve's been clean for seven years now. My boys just
adore him. He grows bonzai trees now. He's become the great generous
person I always knew he was. Steve is my hero - my hero of battles."
She reflects for a beat and continues: "And Joan Baez is
my hero of Grace. I did a tour with her. I was with her when she turned
60. She'd stand and sing front and center with confidence, her voice was
still young, it filled the house. She's making another record now. Joan
taught me not to panic about my age. She inspired me. Now I know that me
too, I'll still be making records when I'm 60."
Earle: Simple Gearle
Earle: Dancin' With Them That Brung Me
Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock
critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years.
He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike
Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz and world
music editor of Culturekiosque.com.