TROUBADORS: JUST PASSIN’ THROUGH
When Retromedia Sound Studios owner John Noll invited redbankgreen over to meet the wife & husband singer-songwriters Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart last month, our first reaction was, “Who?”
Past visits to the studio have introduced us to the somewhat-well-known Canadian heavy-metal act Kittie and, more recently, Joe Piscopo. But Earle and Stuart? A quick glance at their online touring schedule informed us that they didn’t even have a local show coming up that we could trumpet.
But then we scrolled down and got a gander at where they’d been recently, and where they were going. And as soon as we saw that, we thought, “We have got to meet these two.”
Here’s what we saw: Starting in late November, Earle and Stuart played four consecutive nights in different locations in British Columbia including some islands almost never visited by big-name acts followed immediately by a gig in Seattle and then four shows in three days in Colorado, including two in different towns in one day.
“Then we flew home [to Tenneessee] and slept in our bed one night, grabbed our vehicle and made our way up to the great northeast,” Stacey says.
That entailed a crawl up the eastern seaboard, with four shows in four days, each in a different town, culminating on a Sunday night in mid-December at the Atonement Lutheran Church in Asbury Park, where about 30 people turned out to hear them do what Stacey calls their “bluecollar Americana folk” originals.
And it turns out this is normal for them. They’re on the road 280 days a year, doing 170 or so shows.
It’s a pace they’ve kept up for 10 years, since they made Stacey’s first record. She was 37 at the time, and the youngest of her three kids had just graduated from high school. She and Mark emancipated themselves to live their dream of writing songs, recording and playing live.
Of course, put that way, it sounds more romantic than the reality. Writing and recording time are hard to find when you’re scraping out a living one gig at a time in front of audiences averaging fewer than 50 people paying about $15 a head.
“Ninety-nine percent of our time is not music-related,” says Mark. “It’s booking the dates, the sound checks, finding hotels, trying to plot our journeys, keeping up with our receipts. Trying to find a post office or a bank to do our little errands.”
“Walking on stage to do our show, that’s the paydirt for all the crap we did to get there,” he says. “That’s when we get to sing and play.”
At least once a year, they try to hit all the markets they’ve played before, a process that itself now takes a year, biting deep into their creative time. “We can’t even get into a studio to record a record, because it’s hard to get off the road and take the hit financially,” says Mark. “We wouldn’t be out there generating money. That’s how we make our money doing the shows and hawking our CDs from the stage.”
“We have to work really really hard to keep the machinery afloat,” he says.
Now, if those selective quotes make the couple sound like they’re complaining about a fate of their own creation, well, they’re not.
“We’re really blessed,” says Mark, who like Stacey has a syruppy Tennessee accent. “We have a lot of friends who would love to be able to play 170 dates a year.”
Their tours are built from one show to the next, with the major determinants of whether to take an offered gig being drive-time from their last show and profitability. Whereas they once might go far out of their way to for a $60 opening gig for Joe Ely in Cleveland, the couple no longer accepts money-losing stops simply for the exposure. At the end of a tour, they’ve made some money.
“We are in the black,” says Stacey. “Not by great amounts, but we can put money aside, and we’ve invested in our audience.”
They also have built enough of a following that they can call some of their own shots. They won’t play bars unless “all the gadgets are turned off the jukebox, the TV,” says Stacey. There have to be tables set out, with candles on them. Otherwise, “We’d rather pay $80, sit in a hotel room, twiddle our thumbs and watch bad TV.”
“Mark and I love playing for an audience that listens,” she says. All they want is a fair shot at creating an intimate bond between their voices and acoustic guitars and their listeners. Because they want this to be their audience, not someone else’s. That’s an ethic that Stacey impresses on other musicians when she speaks at writing confabs, she says.
The road takes them not only through the States and into Canada, but Europe as well. Overseas is where most American acts make their money, they say.
“You go to Europe to make a living, and you come home to play,” says Stacey. “Europeans have a passion for singer-songwriters.”
It’s a lifestyle that runs in the family. One of Stacey’s sons is in a hardcore band, Evergreen Terrace, that plays in front of thousands; her brother is Steve Earle, a huge country star.
So most of the time, home, for them, is a longed-for vacant house outside Nashville.
“We literally shut the house down,” says Stacey. “We have two energy-efficient lights that we keep on and turn off the heat and air and make sure nothing’s dripping.”
Now, though, they’d like to try reducing the mileage. “We don’t really get a lot of time away from the grind, and when we do, we’re finding we’re not inspired to write,” says Mark. “So we’re realizing we’re getting to the point where we have to start cutting back.”
So why were Earle and Stuart at Retromedia, laying down their usual live set for a studio record? We’ve heard there are one or two studios in Nashville.
Turns out Retromedia’s Noll had brought the couple in back in October for an intimate live concert he recorded, with the idea of getting it played on a country network, and they all hit it off. “We really liked the studio, we really liked Adam (Vaccarelli) the engineer, we really liked John,” says Stacey. “Plus, the guitars behave so well here in this room.”
She also threw in that she loves Red Bank, just walking around when she can get an hour or so of free time. “It’s a great little town,” she says.
Part of it, though, was that they got to break out of both their touring routine and their home routine.
“We’ve made six albums before, and we did them all in Nashville,” says Mark. “This was our first sort of stepping out of that box. We said, let’s do something really far removed from the Nashville climate.”
“When we get home now, because we’re home so little, there’s so much that need to be done things to do to the house, go see Mom and Dad, go see friends,” says Stacey. “As soon as we hit our driveway, the phone starts ringing. So it’s actually quite hard for us to get a record done at home.”
redbankgreen will be sure to let readers know the next time Earle and Stuart are in the vicinity. Though for their sake, we hope it’s not too soon.