“That’s not gonna happen,” Shawn Colvin says with a healthy laugh, when the subject of marriage is brought up — more specifically, the idea of marriage to her current duet and touring partner, Steve Earle. With a total of nine weddings and divorces between them, two of them hers, Colvin adds, “This is a friendship, musically based. We might as well be Simon and Garfunkel.”
Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle’s paths first crossed at the iconic Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts, when she opened for Earle on one of his earliest solo tours. A deep friendship and mutual appreciation for each other’s work followed, with Colvin covering Earle’s restless anthem “Someday,” from his 1986 neo-traditionalist breakthrough album Guitar Town, on her 1994 LP Cover Girl. While the Eighties pulled both performers into the spotlight, their trajectories in the following decade were wildly divergent. Colvin, who won a Best Contemporary Folk Grammy for her 1989 debut, Steady On, broke through to the pop mainstream with the brilliant 1996 album A Few Small Repairs, driven by the incendiary Grammy-winning Record and Song of the Year “Sunny Came Home.”
As Colvin was reaching a career peak, however, Earle was spiraling out of control after years of cocaine and heroin addiction. (Colvin could relate: she herself battled alcoholism). Sentenced to a year in prison, the singer-songwriter was incarcerated for two months before being sent to rehab to serve the remainder of his sentence and get clean. Released in late 1994, Earle returned to the studio and the stage, releasing the extraordinary acoustic collection Train a-Comin’ in 1995.
Two years ago, Colvin was wrapping up a joint tour with Mary Chapin Carpenter and, realizing that she relished the experience of sharing a stage, reached out to Earle to propose a joint tour of their own. He signed on, and soon the idea of a collaborative album took shape: Colvin & Earle, released in June, is a collection of songs the two penned together and a few classic covers, including the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” and Emmylou Harris’s “Raise the Dead.”
Colvin and Earle, in separate interviews, recently spoke with Rolling Stone Country about their new album and tour, the role of protest songs in their early careers and their different approaches to presidential politics. [Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.]
You both came up at a time when protest songs and songs with a social conscience were at their peak. Were they a big part of your respective set lists?
Steve Earle: Yeah, I kind of always did them. My father got called before his boss — he was an air-traffic controller — because I was seen on a flatbed trailer in front of the Alamo singing “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” at a Vietnam Veterans Against the War rally when I was 14. I never knew there was any reason to separate politics and music just because of when I grew up. Even country music was pretty political when I was growing up. Country music got political in its own way just because everything did. It was a very politicized time, from one side of the coin to the other: “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” “Okie From Muskogee.” I just didn’t think you were ever supposed to separate those.
Shawn Colvin: I covered it all.
Were you writing anything that would have been considered political early on?
Colvin: None. I always called it personal politics. I would say my whole first record, Steady On, had a lot to do with healing. From childhood stuff, from romantic stuff, addiction stuff. Those are my causes — the personal politics of becoming conscious and navigating life through conscious eyes.
“Tell Moses,” on Colvin & Earle, is sort of a modern-day song in that same vein, with its references to Ferguson, Missouri.
Colvin: Steve had a pretty clear inspiration for that, but at the same time we were of the same mind that it was a spiritual. That it was going to be a call-and-response feel with that little sing-along there: “The water is wide, milk and honey on the other side.” He wrote a couple of lines and he was so excited because he could sing the word “Israelites.” That’s kind of an example of the way we wrote. It wasn’t so much like, “Oh, this is heavy. This is intense.” It was more the joy of putting words together.
“I used to smoke crack and watch Cops. When I stopped taking drugs, I stopped watching reality TV” – Steve Earle
And then you have a song like “Happy and Free,” which puts words together in a totally different way and comes off as, well, quite happy and free. It’s a bit more upbeat than we might expect.
Colvin: Me too! Steve just started it. “Everybody wants to be happy and free.” It was kind of this lilting little tune. Obviously not too difficult to get the premise of it and we just jumped on in.
Earle: It might be my favorite song on the record. When I write something that simple I’m always really proud of it. Townes [Van Zandt] was always as proud or prouder of “If I Needed You” as he was of anything. When you write something that simple with that much air in it and the whole premise behind it is something pretty obvious — that everybody wants to be happy and free — the song is sort of an exercise in not forgetting that’s what you really want and what you really need. We can get caught up in a lot of other stuff. I’m at a point in my life where I have to remind myself every once in a while how lucky I am that I get to do this for a living. I make a really good living. I still work. I have to work, coasting is not an option. Luckily, I like my job so it’s kind of hard to complain about it.
So would you consider this time in your life to be the happiest and most free?
Earle: I think it probably is. It’s kind of a lot of work right now because I’ve got a little boy with autism [six-year-old John Henry, his son with ex-wife Allison Moorer].
He needs a lot of resources. I know why I’m getting up every morning. My life is very simple right now. I have to take care of him. I think he’s going to be just fine. He doesn’t talk but he communicates just fine. And he’s really ridiculously good-looking. So he’s probably going to be fine. But I’m trying to wire in as much as I can in whatever time I have left.
Shawn, you’ve said before that because of the experiences you both have had in the past with addiction and rehab that you and Steve share a special shorthand? What do you mean by that?
Colvin: We use that word all the time, shorthand. It’s not that we speak a language or that we’re spouting slogans all the time. I think there’s just a depth of experience that has to do with having risen out of the ashes somewhat that translates in a way with the choices you make and the way you function. When you get into recovery you have to relearn a lot of perceptions, attitudes and self-awareness if you want to stay clean. You really do change. Change doesn’t happen often but to a certain extent in some way, I think when you get into recovery and you stay there, you change.
Earle: What happened to me didn’t happen because I was creative. I would have been an addict if I’d been a carpenter. My dreams had come true and I probably stayed as sober as I did as long as I did and was at least functional because they hadn’t. I had stuff I wanted and needed to do. Then once I did that I lost my way pretty quickly. I’ve learned to try to keep a little bit of perspective and, to tell you the truth, John Henry keeps my life pretty simple right now. When I’m on the road I know why I’m out there doing it. I never once asked myself, “What the fuck am I doing here?” When I’m home, I’m taking care of my six-year-old. So that’s pretty simple. And also, I’ve been able to lose weight. [Laughs]
Steve, having been a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders for president, have you come around to the idea of voting for Hillary Clinton?
Earle: I think it’s fairly obvious that I’m not going to vote for Donald Trump. And one thing I’m never going to be is a person who doesn’t vote, especially in this election. I have my problems with Hillary Clinton. I’m a real live leftie. My politics are unapologetically radical and I’m OK with that. The Sanders campaign was the only thing vaguely democratic that has taken place in this whole election cycle on either side, as far as I can see. Even the Clinton campaign recognized immediately what was going on. The two sides have been incredibly respectful of each other, I think, and done this the way that it’s supposed to be done. I’ll never believe that we’ve practiced in our history anything close to the purest form of democracy of the world. Because there are lots of democracies around the world that function better than ours does. It’s always been that way. There’s some truth to the idea that it’s rigged, but there is a way that it’s supposed to work that. . . has kind of gone out the window on the other side. . . If you ever had any doubt that reality television is harmful, put that to rest. I’m trying to protect my intellect. I used to smoke crack and watch Cops. When I stopped taking drugs, I stopped watching reality TV.
Shawn, what’s your take on the presidential race?
Colvin: I don’t talk about it. For two reasons: I’m really not comfortable with it and I kind of want the freedom to learn as I go. I have someone that I support but the landscape changes. I don’t support Trump. We’ll put that right out there. But I also just consider myself not that eloquent or tuned-in. It’s like numbers. There’s a certain part of me that tunes out. And as far as the depth of politics, the strategizing and some of the issues in terms of the national deficit or even the wars that are going on. Honestly, part of me just goes, “Ehhh?” It’s crazy and I don’t get it. I kind of hate to say that but part of it is true. I learn from my friends and I learn from other people who can explain it. It’s like the movie Margin Call. It’s one of my favorite movies ever. It’s about the stock market in the Eighties. I’ve watched it repeatedly and I still don’t understand it, but I absolutely adore the movie. I think on some level I understand what’s at stake but as far as the real nuts and bolts of knowing what that’s about and how it happened. . . it won’t compute.
Steve, do you think you might get married again at some point?
Earle: I’m done. I do really think I finally get it. My therapist says that I choose women that I couldn’t possibly succeed in a relationship with because I really want to be alone. Which sounds complicated and convoluted to me, but I don’t know. Maybe she’s right. There’s a part of me that wants that. My parents stayed together until my dad died. I came from a peer group of people where our center, Townes, was in the ether out there and somebody that we all followed in some way. But the real center of my universe was Guy and Susanna Clark. They were married and they were inseparable. So you never saw one without the other for years and years. I very much wanted that. I was a serial monogamist for a long time. My children, I carry some guilt for what I do because I wasn’t going to quit. Justin [Townes Earle, the oldest of his children] was raised on food stamps and government cheese for the first three or four years of his life. I wasn’t going to quit just because I had kids or because I was married. I didn’t have it in me to give up and go get a job.
On the deluxe version of Colvin & Earle, the two of you do Steve’s “Someday,” a song that you have both recorded separately. This version seems to capture the song’s restlessness a bit more than those solo performances.
Colvin: It was really inspired by Steve’s version. For our live show, that came before the idea of making a record. It’s obviously a song I knew well. I just think the dual guitars probably bring it up to more of a level that’s maybe a little more urgent.
Earle: That [song is] kind of our life connection. I knew exactly what I was looking at with her. She was a real live folksinger like me. She could go up there with one guitar and hold down the room. I was homeless when Shawn released “Someday.” I was at the absolute bottom out on the pike in Nashville. I heard two things: that Emmy[lou Harris] had recorded “Guitar Town” and Shawn recorded “Someday.” Those were the only two little tiny points of light at a very, very dark period in my life.