Music News & Reviews

Unexpected harmonies achieved on ‘Colvin & Earle’

Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin spent about 10 days recording “Colvin & Earle,” which came about after the two performed a week of acoustic shows together in 2014.
Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin spent about 10 days recording “Colvin & Earle,” which came about after the two performed a week of acoustic shows together in 2014.

When Steve Earle suggested to Shawn Colvin that the two singer-songwriters make an album together, Colvin was skeptical the project would ever happen.

“I had all the interest in the world in doing it,” she said recently, “but I’d talked about doing this before with other artists. It rarely happens because everybody’s career gets in the way.”

Apparently, Earle wasn’t like other artists. He followed through, and now fans of the two acclaimed musicians can enjoy the collaborative album “Colvin & Earle,” which was released in June.

The album’s genesis can be traced back to a week of acoustic shows Colvin and Earle shared in late 2014 during which the two swapped songs. “What inspired (Earle) to want to make a record was that our voices sounded really great together,” Colvin said. “That wasn’t something he was expecting. I mean, I don’t think he expected us to sound bad, but he had a really visceral reaction to the blend and wanted to write songs for that pair of voices.”

There should have been little doubt that Colvin, 60, and Earle, 61, possessed the songwriting chops needed for the project. They are among the most acclaimed singer-songwriters in music, with catalogs full of excellent solo albums. But doing “Colvin & Earle” meant venturing into uncharted waters for each of them since they had rarely done this type of start-from-scratch songwriting with other artists.

“It’s true I’m no stranger to co-writing,” Colvin said. “However, my writing partner really is John Leventhal, and we have a system of writing that doesn’t really involve our writing a song together in a room. We may start it that way, but for one reason or another, we generally do some work on our own, especially me. I kind of want to be by myself when I’m working on lyrics. So I’ve never had much luck sitting in a room together with somebody trying to get a song out of it. And he (Earle) didn’t really co-write with anyone, so we didn’t know what was going to happen.

“But it just kind of clicked,” she continued. “I don’t quite know how to describe it. There was honesty and trust and obviously a meeting of the minds and intuitions about what sounded good and what read well.”

The result was songwriting that leavens its emotional charge with maturity, as “Colvin & Earle” explores the dynamics and difficulties of romantic relationships (“The Way That We Do” and “You’re Still Gone” are prime examples).

With the writing complete, the duo brought on Buddy Miller (who has worked frequently with Colvin) as producer, and along with an accomplished group of musicians that made up the studio band, “Colvin & Earle” was recorded in about 10 days.

“We wanted it to be simple in just about every way possible, and picking the players was really key,” Colvin said. “I love the band that’s on this record. You’ll notice it’s just guitars. There are no keyboards. No, there’s a harmonium on one song, that’s it, for about two seconds. Nobody had anything against keyboards. We just wanted it to be a guitar-driven album. ...

“We wanted it to be simple and we wanted it to be live. And we recorded it at Buddy’s house, which I’ve done before, which is very, it’s just, nobody’s precious. If the sounds bleed, the sounds bleed. Steve and I sat in the same room and faced each other. And we did all of the songs live.”

The album is lean and often quite raw – and rocks more than fans of Colvin might expect. It opens with the thumping folk-rock of “Come What May,” “Tell Moses” and a cover of the folk-country standard “Tobacco Road” before moving into gentler territory on rustic ballads such as “You’re Sill Gone” and “The Way That We Do” and the sunny bluegrassy bounce of “Happy And Free.” Throughout the album, the blend of these two voices is a big selling point, with Colvin’s sweet tone providing a great counterpoint to Earle’s rough-around-the-edges singing.

Colvin and Earle will spend much of the rest of the year touring in support of their album. Like their first outing in 2014, there won’t be a band, just the duo on acoustic guitars (or mandolin) and vocals. But the shows will be more structured than the 2014 gigs because the “Colvin & Earle” songs were done as duets.

“Instead of song swapping, we really do all of the songs together,” Colvin said. “We kind of go back in our catalogs a little bit and accompany each other, but nobody ever sits down and watches. Nobody’s ever silent, let’s put it that way.”

Colvin & Earle

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13

Where: The Crest Theatre (1013 K St., Sacramento)

Cost: $35-65

Info: 916-476-3356;