Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart
From the June, 2011 issue
Soon after Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart began their set at the Nor-East'r Music and Art Festival two years ago, our then fifteen-year-old daughter turned to my wife and me and whispered, "They have voices that make you like them." She meant it as a compliment, of course, and we nodded enthusiastically--and then none of us said anything else for the rest of their set.
Afterward, though, we talked at length about all the things we liked about them. Earle's Iris DeMent-like little-girl voice and Stuart's high tenor blend better than most male-female duos; their voices not so much melding into one sound, as many good harmony singers achieve, but each retaining its own distinct timbre while enhancing the other. We raved about Stuart's guitar playing: no flashy, many-notes-per-minute pyrotechnics, but instead impressively clean, satisfying accompaniments and leads--and visually unique. He plays bass lead lines by reaching across the top of his guitar neck with his left hand, rather than fretting the strings in the conventional manner, curling from beneath the neck. It looks different, and, while it shouldn't affect the sound, it somehow manages to. He maneuvers so smoothly from note to note that his instrument often sounds like a Dobro or pedal steel guitar, even when he's not using a slide. He joked about having gone on an Atkins diet--Chet Atkins that is. Reminiscent of the master himself, he's got down pat the muffled, percussive alternating bass, with the clear-as-a-bell melody line ringing out above it. He even had the guts (I wanted to use another word, but this is a family paper) to play "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on acoustic guitar and make the song as compelling as--maybe even more compelling than--the electric original.
Then there's Earle's songwriting. She's Steve Earle's sister and grew up listening to her older brother's jam sessions with the likes of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Townes Van Zandt, and Lyle Lovett. Talk about learning at the feet of the masters.
Her songs--polished, faceted gems--evoke feelings rather than convey messages. The lyrics fall into the "poetry should not mean, but be" category; neither literal storytelling nor a random, arbitrary farrago of words but instead spare, compelling sketches that allow us to fill in the pictures. "Got a car but it won't start/The only fix is a dealer's part." Their music, solidly in the Texas roots country style, also draws on blues and gospel, forming an ideal vehicle to carry the lyrics.
Our family still talks about that magical set we heard a couple of years ago. We plan to get to the Ark early on Monday, June 6, so we can enjoy them even closer up this time.
[Originally published in June, 2011.]
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