My introduction to Stacey Earle was three years ago at a Greg Brown concert in Portland. I remember debating whether or not to go to the show on time, or time my entry to coincide with the end of the opening act. When I found out that the opening act was “Steve Earle’s sister,” I was sure that I should arrive late. Not that I have a problem with her country-rocking Nashville rebel of an older brother. I just figured that we were going to have to listen to someone whose claim to our time and attention was her family connection. But I was with a group of people who like to show up on the time printed on their tickets, who had no tolerance for my concert-timing antics, and there I was.
Yes, yes, yes. Now is when I tell you that Stacey Earle was great and I was wrong. Right? Correct. Earle and her husband Mark Stuart filled the stage with their presence, and filled the room with their bright string pluckings, while Stacey’s soulful lyrics, strong voice, and Daisy Mae accent plucked heartstrings. I was in no hurry for Greg Brown.
Her lyrics come from a place of deep lucidity—she does not write songs just to fill up album space or pass the time. She writes them because, faced with the spectrum of life’s offerings, she doesn’t have a choice.
“A lot of the songs I write mess with people’s emotions a bunch” she admits, “but all I’m doing is what I call a priority check.” Whatever you call it, her lyrics are at once sobering and uplifting. And they are stories to listen to, heavy on metaphor: “We play hide and seek/ and finders keepers/ only the loser is/ left to weep/ well, I’ve got a secret/ but cannot keep it/ I better cross my heart and hope to die.”
Growing out of the shadow of her brother, Earle is probably tired of being compared to others rather than being viewed as herself. Still, comparisons to Nancy Griffith and Iris DeMent can’t hurt too badly. Earle’s Texas twang delivery of a beguiling blend of innocence and experience is uniquely her own.
Stacey plays rhythm guitar, while Mark, a true ace of strings, plays top-notch lead guitar and mandolin. That was the sum total of their arrangement when I saw them in Portland. Now on tour behind her third album, Must Be Live (following Simple Gearle and Dancin’ With Them That Brung Me), the arrangement has grown to include her son Kyle Mims on drums and Michael Webb on bass and accordion. Despite the growth, the arrangement is still simple and lean enough to leave ample room for each note. Their music is beautiful, elegant, and tight.
Earle’s insistently upbeat vibe soothes the ache of her sad songs, while sending happy songs so high into the bliss-o-sphere you have to squint. That’s a good human being for you. I’ll leave you with a sample from my favorite of her songs, “All the tears that she cried”: “But only one thing in her garden will still grow/ why, what could that be? Sure smells like a rose/ but she will soon snatch it/ there straight from the stem/ and the thorn will then prick her, just like a pin/ and as the water fills up her eyes/ she’s making the bottles/ of tears that she cries/ all the tears that she cries/ rain on her face/ trickle on down/ someone open the gates/ till the streets all run dry/ and the whole town is safe/ but under the ground/ to the ocean with rage/ who’s making waves/ passing the night/ it’s the girl with the gleam in her eyes.”
Consider this a strong endorsement for the girl with the gleam in her eyes.