Shawn Colvin & Steve Earle
“The approach in the studio was that if you can play and sing, then it’s not rocket science,” laughs Colvin. “We set up in the house together, Steve and I in one room and the rest of the band in another. We’d rehearse a time or two and record it live, but Steve and I had our lyrics on music stands because the material was so fresh we hadn’t even memorized the words yet.”
It’s a remarkable revelation, considering the conviction and authority with which they inhabit their characters on the album. In a rare change of pace for both artists, the co-writes were true, even-split co-writes, with Colvin contributing a verse here or a melody there and Earle often bringing in a chorus or a chord progression. Album opener “Come What May” is a perfect example of the way their creative process gelled into a gorgeous, cohesive whole, and it’s a prime showcase for their sterling harmonies.
“That was the first song we wrote together,” remembers Colvin, “and it’s a great beginning for the album because Steve hesitates to call any of these songs ‘duets.’ This song is just two people singing to each other.”
“Tell Moses” is a rollicking slice of folk-gospel that works its way from Egypt to Ferguson, MO, while the lively “Happy and Free” is a master-class in what had first impressed Colvin about Earle, the ability to make the simple profound. The album’s more melancholy moments cut close to the bone from Colvin & Earle’s personal experiences, like the winsome “The Way That We Do” and the self-reflective “You’re Right (I’m Wrong).”
“We’ve both been around for a while and we’ve both got shit in that area to write about,” says Earle with a laugh. “For my part, you can’t be married as many times as I have and think its somebody else’s fault that you can’t stay in a relationship.”
For the album’s four covers, Colvin & Earle each picked two to record, pairing “Ruby Tuesday” and “Raise the Dead” with a new interpretation of “You Were On My Mind” that blends elements of Ian & Sylvia and the We Five’s versions (Earle’s choice), and a bluesy take on The Nashville Teens’ “Tobacco Road” (Colvin’s pick).
Perhaps the most touching moment, though, comes with the album’s closer, “You’re Still Gone,” which began with some lyrics written by Miller’s wife Julie.
“Several years ago Julie handed me these opening verses,” remembers Colvin, “and I brought it to Steve during this session because I had written more verses for it, but I didn’t know where to go from there. Steve fell in love with the song and wrote the choruses. It’s really sentimental to me because my father had just died, and Julie’s lyrics inspired me to write the next verses about my dad. Steve didn’t know that, but he came up with a chorus that says, ‘You’re still gone,’ and then it turned out that Julie had actually written the first two verses for her brother, who had passed away years ago.”
Such is the deep emotional connection and spiritual bond that enables this record to be so much greater than the (already great) sum of its parts. Few things can touch the magic of artists so in tune that they seem to be able to read each other’s minds. It would have been impossible to predict backstage at the Iron Horse all those years ago, but Colvin & Earle have gone from sharing a stage to sharing a band to sharing one of the finest records in either of their storied careers. That night in Northampton turned out to be the beginning of a very beautiful friendship indeed.