Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart
9 p.m. Friday
the Blue Door
2805 N. McKinley
Stacey Earle's vocals flow like winter wind across the bare trees: crisp, true and unfettered. There's a sprightly airiness to her phrasing, like nothing could weigh her down, as if her unvarnished honestly had loosened her from earthly bonds.
Vocally, she's frequently compared to Nanci Griffith, although her songs are loose and freer, buoyed in part by husband and fellow guitarist Mark Stuart, as the wind beneath her wings. His husky vocals complement hers, while his guitar plays the supple counterpart to her country-folk strum. The pair has been inseparable for almost 18 years.
Naturally, they met cute, at a open-mic night Earle had founded at a tavern dubbed Jack's Guitar Bar. It was the inaugural event and Stuart, an aspiring songwriter, was there.
When, toward the end of the evening, Earle decided to run through her songs again " after all, it was all about honing one's chops " Stuart came onstage and joined her on guitar. He'd actually seen her play before, opening for her brother, and playing alongside someone who usually played bass " a musician Earle felt wasn't adept enough accompaniment to do her songs justice.
"I already had a little bit of an idea what I would do on her material," Stuart said from their Tennessee home. "So that first night we played together, I immediately pounced on it, and played in the way I thought her songs deserved, which is kind of a minimalist guitar approach. It's not to overplay and cover up the song, but just to give it some color. I think that we had an immediate chemistry in the way we used our two guitars and harmonies."
That chemistry carried on offstage, and the pair met up later than night at a diner, Earle recalled with a laugh.
"I remember driving in my car saying, 'Why am I going to meet this guy at 3 in the morning? What am I doing? Maybe he's crazy. Maybe he'll go off and kill me or something,'" she said. "But I met him at the Waffle House, and we talked until 5 in the morning. We've been together almost 24 hours a day ever since."
The pair has self-released six albums together " although Stuart didn't share billing on Earle's first two releases " on the duo's Gearle Records label.
Earle came late to music, although it was always a part of her life. She only began performing after she divorced her husband in 1990 and moved in with her brother. She had been playing a little guitar over the years, and one day, her brother heard her singing and invited her to tour with him as a backing vocalist. Before long, Earle was balancing her new career with parenting two children and holding down multiple jobs as a waitress.
"Being a young, single mom, you think you're just indestructible," she said. "I would go to work and wait tables all day long, grab the kids from school, run down to a songwriters' night with the kids, sign up, get the kids back to the house, get them bathed, get the babysitter and get back in time to sing my songs. That's how it went for at least two years. If I had been older, maybe I would've had more sense, but I also would not have gotten anywhere."
Whether it's the way she grew up, or just what's in her soul, there's an unaffected straightforwardness to her songs that burns brightly. Whether declaring, "I can make it all on my own / They'll say 'My girl, how you've grown,'" while running recollections of childhood games of hide-and-seek into her teenage pregnancy on "Losers Weep," or contemplating loneliness on the bluesy, "Oh, Well," Earle finds ample poignancy in the mundane, imbuing the sentimental with a matter-of-factness.
"These days, people are afraid of simplicity," she said. "Songs from the '50s were sort of goofy in a way. But now everyone's so worried about being tough, no one wants to really show their heart."
One of the big influences Stuart's had on the duo was his encouragement of musical diversity. While Earle's early albums were very folk with a tinge of country, new tunes now run the spectrum, including rock, swing and blues.
"It's all over the map," Stuart said. "I'm proud of that."
He spent plenty of time in bands growing up, and while he's contributed songs to the duo's albums, he's looking forward to supporting his own solo album, "Left of Nashville," which he recorded himself, manning all the instruments. To afford Stuart a little spotlight out of the pair's shadow, the two soon will cut back on duo performances.
"We're not going to stop playing as a duo, but we're going to maybe have a band some of the time," Stuart said. "We're going to go back to having some solo dates. We're going to do some things where we interact with some other artists outside of one another."
"When he walked into Jack's Guitar Bar, his mission wasn't to become a duo. He was his own artist and I was already in the works of establishing my solo career," Earle said. "So we can't leave those solo careers behind completely." "Chris Parker