Singer-Guitarist Steve Earle and Singer-Songwriter Shawn Colvin Bring Their ‘Crossed Harmonies’ to Music Box

click to enlarge Singer-Guitarist Steve Earle and Singer-Songwriter Shawn Colvin Bring Their ‘Crossed Harmonies’ to Music Box
Alexandra Valenti
Last year, as singer-guitarist Steve Earle was in the midst of two-hour concert before a capacity crowd at Music Box Supper Club, he made a comment about getting kicked out of a blues band when he was 13. He said his 2015 album, Terraplane, a straight-up blues offering, was essentially a way of commemorating the dismissal.

His revenge was our good fortune as Earle and his backing band, the Dukes, put on a stellar show that was the first of two sold out nights at the venue.

Earle loves the venue — he returns to town on Aug. 7 to play the Music Box with singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin. The two are touring together in support of Earle & Colvin, a fantastic new collection of tunes that finds the duo collaborating on the songwriting and playing a few choice covers.

The two first met almost three decades ago when Colvin opened for Earle, who was on a solo acoustic tour. Earle immediately proposed that he and Colvin record an entire album together.

“I started doing solo tours in between my band touring cycles as soon as I started making records,” says Earle via phone from a Lexington tour stop. “I knew that I instinctively needed to do that to keep touch with who I am and what I am as a singer-songwriter. Also, it was a way I knew whether I had songs or not. It was the way I was taught to assay what I had created. [Singer-songwriter] Guy Clark told me they’re not songs unless you play them for people.”

Earle was touring in the wake of the alt-country classic Exit Zero and prior to the release of his breakthrough album Copperhead Road. Colvin’s debut, Steady On, had yet to come out.

“I knew exactly what I was looking at — [Colvin] was a folk singer who could stand up there and hold down an audience by herself with just a guitar,” says Earle. “And she was hot. I remembered her and ran into her off and on over the years. A short time later, I was pretty much homeless and one of the tiny points of light that gave me hope was that Emmylou [Harris] had recorded ‘Guitar Town’ and Shawn had recorded ‘Someday.’ That was a big deal to me. It made me believe that what I had done was remembered and was worth something and I needed that. It was one of a handful of things that helped me find my way back.”

Earle served a 60-day jail term in the 1990s. When he got out of prison, he would regularly meet Colvin at gigs, and they started singing the aforementioned “Someday,” his tune “Fearless Heart” and a few other songs together. Earle says their approaches to writing songs might be different, but that doesn’t mean their personalities clash.

“As far music goes, she underestimates herself as a writer a lot of the time, and she writes really great songs," he says. "She talks in terms of it being something that’s hard for her to do. She struggles to do it. I have to wake up and assume I’m going to write something otherwise I would probably shoot myself. It’s how I justify my existence. I don’t have writer’s block because I don’t believe in it, I guess.”

Just a few years ago, Colvin came up with the idea of doing a tour together, and the two started singing “Someday” all the way through together in harmony.

“That’s the first time we realized that something happens when we sing together,” says Earle. “That was what made me want to make a record. I wanted to write songs for those two voices. That was what I wanted to do. It was her idea for us to tour together, and my idea to make a record.”

For the album, they teamed up with a longtime friend, singer-songwriter Buddy Miller who cut the songs in a six-day session at his home studio.

“It was cool,” Earle says when asked about the sessions. “It was just in his house. There’s no formal control room, but there’s a first-rate console. There’s a Trident B Range there, which is a great console. Some great records have been made there. He was really busy because it was the last season of Nashville, and he was the music director. We just found a hole in our schedule.”

The album opener “Come What May” shows how well their voices blend. Earle’s raspy voice provides a nice contrast to Colvin’s supple tones.

“It was a guitar riff that any guitar dealer in North America and most of Europe has heard me play,” says Earle when asked about the song. “Whenever I picked up a large acoustic guitar, something you’d strum on rather than finger pick, it was a riff I’d play. If I picked up a D18 or J200 or something big, it was the riff I played. I did that for a couple of years and I knew it’d become a song one of these days. It was kind of cool because it’s Beatles-esque in the chorus and for the verses, we did this cross harmony thing that the Everly Brothers did and the Delmores did and the Louvins did.”

Earle says the two don’t plan who’ll sing which line of a song or which lines they’ll sing in unison.

“We change parts, and we don’t rehearse when we do it,” he says. “We just sing and it works. That’s what’s intriguing and made me want to make a record with her in the first place. It’s a very natural approach to harmony singing. I thought I was the worst harmony singer in the world and some people probably still think I am, but my opinion of myself of a harmony singer has been elevate somewhat in the process.”

With its snarling guitars and clanging percussion, John D. Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road” has a great bluesy vibe to it. 

“Shawn wanted to do it,” Earle explains. “She always says it’s a song she couldn’t see herself singing it on her own. She likes to do covers and has done two covers records. Once we started singing together, she wanted to sing one of the two parts on it and knew what part she wanted to sing. Richard Bennett, the guitar player on [1986’s Guitar Town] and all that stuff, is the guitar player on that.”

“You’re Right (I’m Wrong),” another highlight, has a real edge to it as Earle’s sneering vocals dominate the mix.

“There’s one change on it,” Earle says of the song. “We had Chris Wood for the first four days and the fifth day my own bassist Kelly Looney came in and played electric bass on ‘You’re Right (I’m Wrong)’ and ‘Raise the Dead.’ That song started with this weird B-minor suspended something that I came up with. The guitar riff is Richard [Bennett]’s. I emulate it when we play it live now. It was one of those things where the song had this inherent lonesomeness to it from the beginning. It was the last thing we wrote. We literally finished the lyrics on the last day of recording.”

Given that Earle, who has overcome drug addiction and been married several times, hasn’t had an easy life, how does music play a role in sustaining him?

“Music is just what I do,” he says. “I played music until I couldn’t when I was still using. That took away everything, including music. Nothing was going to come back until I got sober. That’s what it was about. Once I got clean, there was no way. To this day, it’s still 12-step. I go to meetings. I call my sponsor. I sponsor people. And a little yoga. That’s what I run on nowadays.”

Steve Earle & Shawn Colvin, 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 7, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $75 ADV, $85 DOS,
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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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