july 2009

Stacey Earle & Mark Stuart Wind Down As A Musical Duo

Still coupled, husband and wife will move on to new challenges

By David McGee

Mark Stuart (left) and Stacey Earle: 'We've been together 24 hours for 17 years,' Stacey says. 'The question is whether we can make it without being together like that. We're real good buddies; we even know how to argue well.

"The odometer now says 414,171," Stacey Earle chirps over the phone. "Original engine and everything. I think we can't stop touring until the car dies. But we will."

The odometer, "original engine and everything" are in a 1999 Chevy Suburban, the "we" who can't stop touring but will are Stacey and her husband, Mark Stuart, they being also a long running duo favorite on the folk/Americana circuit. In an announcement made on their website (www.staceyandmark.com) last month, the couple revealed that their 12-year road odyssey as a duo is coming to an end upon completion of dates already booked and still being booked that will carry them to the midway point of 2010, concluding with a final jaunt to Europe. Stuart will continue on with solo dates and the Earle-Stuart duo will, after some time off, perform selected shows in their strongest markets. The Suburban, though, has become so much a part of the Earle-Stuart legend that Stacey now Twitters daily mileage updates to the fans (www.twitter.com/Gearle).

"I show it to people and make them lean in the car and see it for themselves," Stuart says, "because you rarely see a vehicle with that kind of mileage. We finally did a transmission job on it at 359,000 miles, and we do an oil change really religiously, every 3000, 3500 miles."

Speaking exclusively to TheBluegrassSpecial.com, Earle and Stuart explained their decision to cease touring together, at least for the near term, as arising from one partner's desire to expand his musical horizons, and to the other's need to recapture her muse and to take care of family business following the devastating loss of her family's "glue," meaning her father, two Christmases past. What both made clear is the message that this is not a divorce, either musically or matrimonially, not no way, not no how.

"I love my wife and we still want to be together as people and we still want to play music together," Stuart asserts, "but this treadmill we've been on for 12 years now needs to change, and maybe we need to turn a corner and have some different things to focus on so that we still want to do it."

"Mark and I are very much intact. We just need a change—a change musically, a change in everything, you know," Earle says, musing further as to whether being apart as artists is something they can really pull off. Familiarity, in this case, has bred content. "Whether we'll be able to deal with it, I don't know. We've been together 24 hours for 17 years. The question is whether we can make it without being together like that. We're real good buddies; we even know how to argue well. It's not that we don't argue; we just do it really good. We don't slam the door, we just break it!"

For his part, Stuart, a massively gifted guitarist, solid songwriter and compelling, hearty-voiced vocalist (who last year released a first-rate solo album, Left of Nashville, his first solo project since 1999's acclaimed From a Corner Stage), wants to seize an opportunity to put more of his own work out for public consumption, in addition to venturing into new waters creatively, on his own and in tandem with other musicians. In a sense, he's looking to return to his roots as a musician, when he broke in playing in rock bands and wailing, and to test more of his own music on the audience that has been drawn to the duo all these years. "We've been touring about 275, 280 days a year for about 12 years," he says. "I'm in a duo, which has officially been a duo for over eight years, and musically, for me, I don't feel like what I'm doing is diverse enough. I want to play with a band again; I played for 20 years in band situations. I miss having a rhythm section to play with, I miss plugging in and playing my Stratocaster, I miss playing more rock tunes and blues tunes in the show. And I want to do a band thing maybe 15, 20 dates a year. I'd like to do a bit more Mark Stuart concerts, where I'm doing more of my own material. In our current show I'm maybe doing five songs, or six, or eight songs, and Stacey's doing about 13 of her songs. Some nights I feel like doing 20 of my songs, but I don't get to do that in our act. And I'm sure she feels a bit the same way. There was a time when she did the whole 20 or 25 songs, and since we became a duo she's had to forfeit some of that space. I'd like to maybe play on more records by other artists, but when I'm on tour all the time I can't do it because I'm always driving to the next gig, checking in and out of the hotel and sound checking. I'm really not around to play on other people's projects. So to make a long story short, I'd like to diversify a bit more than what I've been doing all these years. It's finally reached the point where I needed to make a call on it and say, 'Now's the time.' And I'd like to play with other artists on occasion and interact with them."

As per the latter, Stuart's already got one short tour booked for a week in January 2010, when he and Pete Kennedy, of the Kennedys, do a week's worth of dates on the east coast. "It's just gonna be the two of us—a 'leave the girls at home' tour," Stuart explains. "It'll probably be a little more guitar oriented, since we're both known for our guitar playing. I would like to do more than a week, but Pete has taken on some sort of teaching or instructional job in New York City. I don't know a lot about it, but he's obligated to do it now. So he's taking a week off to do the tour, but he doesn't want to stay out on the road too long because he has to get back to his students. We'll probably do six dates in seven days. It's all going to be in the east, so he doesn't have to venture too far from New York."

Whatever he does solo, Stuart knows, and his wife affirms, the looming shadow of what Stacey calls "Earle Power." What this means to Stuart is a realization on his part of a diminished audience without Stacey on board. He's taken this into account when contemplating his likely itinerary. "My drawing power is going to be less than Stacey's. I know that for a fact, and I found it out last year when I toured solo. I do draw well enough in most of the markets I've toured all these years that I can get gigs there, but I'm going to see a smaller number than our duo, probably a smaller number than Stacey would see if she were playing solo. Also, some of the rooms we play in certain cities are going to be too big for me. But I'll do a lot of house concerts and clubs where they've been transformed into a listening environment. I don't see a huge change in that, other than I know I'm going to have smaller numbers in a lot of the markets. And there's certain places I went last year solo and had really good turnouts; a couple of them were better than we had seen as a duo, and I don't even know how to explain that."

"You can't ever clean away that Earle thing, and he's never been able to get out and do his thing," Stacey adds. "It's always going to be overshadowed somewhat by the Earle Power thing, you know. Earle Power ends up in the press, Earle Power ends up on the marquee, sometimes Mark doesn't. But Mark deserves his chance. When I met him he had five thousand dollars under his mattress and he was heading for L.A. to go do his musical thing. Right then and there we became Stacey and Mark; even though we weren't a duo at the time, we never played without each other, except when he would go play a bar gig to bring money in while I was waiting tables. So it's really time for him—would Mark Stuart have grown to the level he wanted to go to, would Stacey Earle have kept going as Simple Gearle, as people knew her? Would we have? I don't know—we never tried it. We became Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart. So it's time to see where it goes."

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Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart perform 'Man In the Moon' at Mama Hillybeans in Tehachapi, CA

As for Stacey's own musical endeavors, everything's on hold, including an album she announced would be released last year, titled Just Along For the Ride. In the wake of her father Jack's death, she's lost her muse, as she frankly admits, and now devotes most of her energy to caring for her mother, Barbara, who's still coming to terms with losing her near-lifelong companion. As her father's condition worsened in 2007, Stacey began to lose her focus as a writer; in the aftermath of his passing, other priorities loom larger and there's only so much energy to go around.

"I was really feeling it when dad was sick. At that time I wanted to be home, did not want to be on the road. A big part for me, call me a titty baby, whatever, but it's never been the same since he left," says Stacey. "I think it's because I haven't given myself a chance to absorb it. It shut me down as a writer. I worry about mom and want to be there for her. So anything I would have to say right now lyrically would make people go jump off bridges. Stacey Earle is expected to be sunshine, but I don't really feel a lot of sunshine. I know in my heart, as a writer, it'll come back, but right now it's just not there. I was in the mode when I announced The Ride, and I had written the main song, and I've got tons of melodies and partially written songs. I've got a whole album of partially written songs; I feel confident with that. But not great lyrics. Maybe I'm afraid to say it. I'm a writer who's experiencing the mental block.

"You know your body isn't meant to go 65 miles an hour 280 days a year, or on an airplane at 300 miles an hour—you're just not meant to move that fast for that many years. You gotta shut it down. I'm a bit afraid of it, yeah, but I'm tired, gotta stop the train a bit. So I will pick and choose what shows I do. Not to be discriminatory in any way but if it doesn't make sense for me to go out, I'm going to invest that time into mom. Her and I have buddied up, and that's good. Stop and smell the roses. I guess it was losing dad that really told me how fast life goes. He was definitely the glue. Sitting at the funeral, in those darn metal chairs, at the last of the ceremony, I was looking down at my hands and it really hit me. I said to mom, 'I feel so grown up all of a sudden.' It dawned on me that I'm not daddy's little girl anymore. I'm my mom's little girl, but not daddy's. It really was a strange feeling. Making all the arrangements and everything, you feel more grown up than you ever want to be. It really changes you, and boy, you're grown up. Completely. I think you've finally reached that complete adulthood. It strips that final layer of childhood out of you. But some people move on faster than others. Maybe I should have came off the road right after and I'd be doing better with it. So that's my purpose."

For now, though, it's back into the Chevy suburban, for the next leg of what the couple has dubbed the "Drive Her Till She Drops Tour," its purpose, according to Mark, being to "drive the Suburban into her final resting place, our driveway. She's still running great, she's paid for, we bought it with 17 miles on it in 2000, and she's pulled up and over the Rocky Mountains a few times a year."

Mark and Stacey have cut four albums as a duo, but Stacey's first two solo albums, 1998's Simple Gearle and 2000's Dancin' With Them That Brung Me, feature Stuart on guitar; in addition to his solo albums, Stuart also has an instructional DVD available, Americana Acoustic Guitar Styles, which is described as focusing on "techniques to help you zone in on what it takes to become a tasteful side person, or to back yourself on your own songs." All of the couple's solo and duo CD releases and Mark's DVD are available at www.staceyandmark.com/GearleStore/gearlestore.htm.

A note on the website directs anyone wanting to book Mark Stuart and Stacey Earle to contact Mark at cannedgood@earthlink.net.

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