Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle make tour stop in Avon, Aug. 31
Special to the Daily
If you go …
What: Shawn Colvin & Steve Earle, the final concert in the Avon Live Summer Concerts in the Park Series.
When: 5:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 31; doors open at 5 p.m. with The Kids Zone, which features face painting and the Cave of Confusion, a 3D interactive maze.
Where: Avon Performance Pavilion in Harry A. Nottingham Park, Avon.
Cost: General admission is free, and the VIP experience is $20.
When Steve Earle suggested to Shawn Colvin that the two singer-songwriters should make an album together, Colvin was skeptical a project would ever happen.
“I had all the interest in the world in doing it,” Colvin said in a recent phone interview. “But I’d talked about doing this before with other artists. It rarely happens because everybody’s career gets in the way.”
Apparently, Earle wasn’t like many other artists. He followed through, and now fans of the two acclaimed artists can hear the collaborative album, “Colvin & Earle,” which was released in June.
Birth of an album
The album had its genesis when Colvin and Earle got together for a week of acoustic shows in late 2014, and some magic ensued as they swapped songs during those shows.
“What inspired him to want to make a record was that our voices sounded really great together,” Colvin said. “That wasn’t something he was expecting. I mean, I don’t think he expected us to sound bad, but he had a really visceral reaction to the blend and wanted to write songs for that pair of voices. He thought they should be recorded. So that’s how it started.”
There was little doubt that Colvin and Earle possessed the songwriting chops needed for the project, with each claiming a catalog of solo albums. Earle’s discography includes his 1986 debut “Guitar Town” (considered a cornerstone release in the alt-country genre), the hard-rocking “Copperhead Road” (1988), the bluegrass gem “The Mountain” (a collaboration with the Del McCoury Band) and the adventurous 2000 release “Transcendental Blues.”
Colvin’s catalog is highlighted by her 1989 debut “Steady On,” the 1996 release “A Few Small Repairs” (which featured her Grammy-winning hit single, “Sunny Came Home”) and her 2012 effort, “All Fall Down.”
But doing “Colvin & Earle” meant venturing into uncharted waters for each of them, since they had rarely done full-on, start-from-scratch songwriting with other artists.
“It’s true I’m no stranger to co-writing,” Colvin said. “However, my writing partner really is John Leventhal, and we have a system of writing that doesn’t really involve our writing a song together in a room. We may start it that way, but for one reason or another, we generally do some work on our own, especially me. I kind of want to be by myself when I’m working on lyrics, so I’ve never had much luck sitting in a room together with somebody trying to get a song out of it.
“And he (Earle) didn’t really co-write with anyone, so we didn’t know what was going to happen. But it just kind of clicked. I don’t quite know how to describe it. There was honesty and trust and obviously a meeting of the minds and intuitions about what sounded good and what read well, and it was really a lot of fun.”
Setting a tone
Colvin said she and Earle didn’t need much discussion about the lyrical themes or tone of the album. Instead, during the three songwriting sessions that produced the six originals on “Colvin & Earle” (to go with four covers that include versions of the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” and Emmylou Harris’ “Raise The Dead”), the subject matter took care of itself as the writing unfolded.
“(Songs tended to start) with a couple of lines that somebody came up with or a title or the music that got written,” Colvin said. “There was kind of an automatic understanding of the mood and purpose. So it really wasn’t something we belabored at all. It was really a lot of fun.”
The organic nature of the writing, though, produces an emotional charge — and maturity — to the songs, as these seasoned tunesmiths frequently explore the dynamics and difficulties of romantic relationships (“The Way That We Do” and “You’re Still Gone” are prime examples). That theme seems natural enough, given that between them, Colvin, 60, and Earle, 61, have been married and divorced nine times.
Colvin said the fact that she and Earle share a number of similar life experiences, including fractured relationships, recoveries from serious substance addictions and having made music in the folk/rootsy country-rock idioms, probably helped them connect as songwriting collaborators.
“I never really thought of it from a personal point of view, honestly,” Colvin said when asked how their backgrounds and personalities helped the songwriting. “It’s kind of a passion for the music that just is the strongest driving force. But personally, we have a lot in common just in our lives, our trials and tribulation. So there’s sort of been an understanding, I don’t know, just understanding each other’s character.”
With the songs written, the duo then brought on Buddy Miller, who has worked frequently with Colvin, as producer, and along with an accomplished group of musicians that made up the studio band, “Colvin & Earle” was recorded in about 10 days. Everyone was on the same page about the kind of feel they wanted on the album.
“We wanted it to be simple in just about every way possible, and picking the players was really key,” Colvin said. “I love the band that’s on this record. You’ll notice it’s just guitars. There are no keyboards. No, there’s a harmonium on one song, that’s it, for about two seconds. Nobody had anything against keyboards. We just wanted it to be a guitar-driven album. So we got Richard Bennett, and of course Buddy was on there.
“We wanted it to be simple and we wanted it to be live. And we recorded it at Buddy’s house, which I’ve done before, which is very, it’s just, nobody’s precious. If the sounds bleed, the sounds bleed. Steve and I sat in the same room and faced each other. And we did all of the songs live.”
‘Not rocket science’
“It’s not rocket science,” she said. “If you can sing and play and you enjoy that kind of thing, it can be done. Steve and I sat there with music stands and lyrics printed out oftentimes because we didn’t know all of the words. So we recorded actually reading off of the page for some songs.”
The album is lean and often quite raw and rocks more than Colvin’s fans might expect. It opens with the thumping folk-rock of “Come What May,” “Tell Moses” and a cover of the folk-country standard “Tobacco Road” before moving into gentler territory on rustic ballads such as “You’re Sill Gone” and “The Way That We Do” and the sunny, bluegrass bounce of “Happy and Free.” The album blends the two voices, with Colvin’s sweet tone providing a counterpoint to Earle’s rough-around-the-edges singing.
Colvin and Earle will spend much of the rest of the year touring in support of the album, including a stop at the Avon Performance Pavilion in Harry A. Nottingham Park today. Like their first outing in 2014, there won’t be a band, just the duo on acoustic guitars (or mandolin) and vocals. But the upcoming shows will be more structured than the 2014 gigs because the “Colvin & Earle” songs were done as duets.
“Instead of song swapping, we really do all of the songs together,” Colvin said. “We kind of go back in our catalogs a little bit and accompany each other, but nobody ever sits down and watches. Nobody’s ever silent, let’s put it that way.”