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Stacey Earle

Stacey Earle:
From Soap Opera to Country Music Star

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 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.

Stacey 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 more.

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.

When 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 it love."

Stacey Earle
Stacey Earle
Photo : Marc Tschida

All 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."

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.

She met 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 , and through an international distribution system she built and maintains herself. The twenty to thirty CDs sold after each concert are all profit.

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."

The 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 them, girl."

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."

Stacey Earle

Stacey Earle: Simple Gearle

Stacey Earle

Stacey 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

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