Track By Track: Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle’s ‘Colvin & Earle’

Dean Budnick on August 3, 2016

“This record came about because I had the idea that Steve and I should do some dates together,” Shawn Colvin explains of their new collaborative album, Colvin & Earle. “I’d done a stint with Mary Chapin Carpenter where we spent the evening onstage together— trading songs, singing on each other’s songs as a duo—and I adored it. It was camaraderie. I got entertained; I got to be a backup musician. I didn’t have to be alone. I don’t mind doing my solo stuff; I think I’m good at it and it’s what I do. But that was really fun and I thought, ‘Who else can I do this with?’ Steve and I had never really worked together. We’d met and we knew one another—we sat in with each other a couple of times—but he’s a person I thought of often, and he said he’d be up for doing it. He calls it ‘whitewashing the fence’ [a Tom Sawyer reference] because my motive was doing half the work.”

“The very first show we did together, we didn’t really even rehearse except for at soundcheck that day,” Steve Earle adds. “We had two chairs onstage, and one of us would sing and one of us would sit down, and we’d trade songs for about half the show. From that point on, it was both of us playing—even if we both weren’t singing. The surprising thing though—the real epiphany— was how well we sang together. The very first thing we ever sang together in front of people was ‘Wake Up Little Susie.’ Right at that point, we realized there’s something that happens when we sing together that we both found exciting. That’s when I began saying, ‘We need to make a record.’”

With that charge, Colvin and Earle started working on Colvin & Earle in multiple locations, enlisting Buddy Miller to produce and accompany them on baritone guitar. They also hired a top notch band featuring guitarist Richard Bennett (Neil Diamond, Mark Knopfler), drummer Fred Eltringham (Sheryl Crow, The Wallflowers) and bassist Chris Wood (Medeski Martin & Wood, The Wood Brothers) for the sessions.


Shawn Colvin: When Steve suggested we make this record, he felt it would be important that we write songs together, which obviously was the thing to do. We got together three separate times. The first time was in Nashville. We were on a little break during our tour, and we spent a couple of days in my hotel room working on stuff, and “Come What May” was the first song we wrote. He came in with a musical idea, and we both just started scribbling down lyrics. I would go off into the bedroom of the hotel and sleep and start scribbling lyrics and then, come back in and give them to him. It came about pretty fast. So that was the first thing we wrote with the idea that this was a song that two people would sing together.


Steve Earle: That same day that we finished “Come What May,” we started “Tell Moses.” It started with a mandolin riff that had been sitting around— I’d even played it with my band some, and I thought it was part of this “country record” that I’ve been writing, which will definitely be my next solo record. The melody that I was playing comes from the mandolin riff—and you can hear it opening the track—and it just dawned on me that this is good for harmony, and so we started working on it that day. 

“Tell Moses” sounded like a spiritual number when we sang it together. So we went to the Exodus story. At first, we thought it was going to be a modern-day “Abraham, Martin and John” [the 1968 Dick Holler song first recorded by Dion]. Then, we struck on Selma. The movie had been out, I’d been thinking about it, reading about it. I had friends who went on the anniversary to march across the bridge and I was invited but couldn’t go. So that was there, and we started working on that. Shawn wrote most of that verse, the Martin verse. Originally, I think we thought that the last verse would be about Nelson Mandela, but at some point, I think it was me who stumbled into “Ferguson, Missouri.” Those other movements had leaders, but maybe this movement lacks a leader simply because, at some point, what matters is what we do individually in our everyday lives.


SC: I came in with “Tobacco Road.” I have a weakness for ‘60s on 6 on SiriusXM, and they would play The Nashville Teens’ version of “Tobacco Road.” I loved it—always have— and it reminded me of Steve. Once this whole thing was in the workshop, I thought that this is something that I love and is a great duo song, so I brought it in and we tried it and it worked out.

SE: That’s Jimmy Page’s guitar riff on the version that everybody knows. It was from the second or third session that Page got as a sub for Big Jim Sullivan. The first one was “Downtown” and the second or third one was “Tobacco Road.” I was a little intimidated by that guitar riff because we always planned on touring this record with just the two of us without a band because that’s the way we’d done it before. But then I figured out that I didn’t necessarily have to play it on guitar. So, on the record, what you hear is me playing it on an octave mandolin and then Richard Bennett playing it on the guitar.


SC: That was Steve’s pick. Who doesn’t know “Ruby Tuesday?” Who would not want to try it? So we did, and even though that’s not traditionally a duet or a duo song, our edict for this record is that we would sing everything together. We took “Ruby Tuesday” and folked it up a little bit: and I think it stands up well.

When songwriters choose to cover someone else’s song, it’s pretty important to bring something a little bit new to it, not better. I think hearing the song in a different way is hopefully something that works and is an important component of us covering a song that everybody knows so well.

SE: We talked about doing it when we were touring, but we never learned it, so we learned it for the record. We’re really proud of that one. And I get to be Mick and Keith, how cool is that? I sing the melody on the verses and Keith’s part on the choruses. Shawn and I naturally switch parts anyway—it’s just one of the things that happens when we sing, so nobody’s got the melody for the whole song on any of this stuff.


SC: I brought in “The Way That We Do”—the guitar parts, the music—and I thought it was along the lines of my Joni Mitchell predilections. I was hoping Steve would like it and he did, so he was into working on it. I had the title and Steve said, “Let’s use phrases that are sort of common rather than telling a specific story.” So “fly on the wall,” “ghost in the hall”—things like that. That’s where the form of it sprang from—again, it’s a good song for a couple to sing together and sing to each other.

SE: We wrote “The Way That We Do” together in my New York City apartment. There were three writing sessions: one in Nashville in the middle of a tour, one where I flew to Austin, and “The Way That We Do” is the last one. And it’s the only one where you hear our voices separately on the record. I think there’s a lot of Fred Neil’s ghost in that; although I don’t think I’ve talked to Shawn about it. I can look out the window of my apartment and there’s the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal where Fred Neil’s standing on the cover of that album [1965’s Bleecker & MacDougal]. The way the song turned out reminds me of “Dolphins” or one of those moody Fred Neil songs. I definitely was leaning on that vocally because, in singing that together, I’m as low as I get and she’s as high as she gets and it’s kind of weird.


SE: There’s actually a fourth place the songs were written, and that was over the Internet. I was in the back of a bus and she was flying, but I just sent her a mandolin riff. I put it down on my phone and sent it to her. I had the title and we started trading verses back and forth by text and email. The whole thing was written that way.

There’s a fine line between narcissism and being able to communicate with an audience. What allows you to not cross that line is empathy. This job is not so much about telling people how you feel as it is talking about the things that you feel other people give a fuck about. Our audiences are smart. They’ll call bullshit on us. What they care about it is that there’s a common experience. So “Happy and Free,” that’s what everybody wants, right?

SC: It’s the feel-good song of the record.


SC: Steve brought that in, and as I’ve said, I’m often glued to the ‘60s on 6 channel, and the We Five’s “You Were on My Mind” is on a lot. Steve brought it in and didn’t really know that version but we gave it a try. It’s a good example of the way our voices click and blend. I also have to say, the band we had on this record and having Buddy Miller as the producer couldn’t have been more perfect. When I listen to “You Were on My Mind,” I just love the band—I just love the dynamic, the way they work with it. It was a total pleasure to do that one.

SE: “You Were on My Mind” is weird. I learned from a Canadian journalist that it was written about two blocks from my apartment by Sylvia Fricker in what was then called the Hotel Earle. I thought it was an Ian Tyson song. I knew the original was Ian & Sylvia. Crispian St. Peters recorded it—a lot of people did.

The chord structure was my idea. We talked about it for the tour and never learned it, so we pretty much learned it in the studio. It was the hardest thing we worked on for any of the tracks. For one thing, we didn’t know it and we didn’t write it. It’s the We Five chord structure that was the big hit. We used that chord structure, which is way more complicated than the original. I insisted on using Sylvia’s original lyric, which had been cleaned up quite a bit for AM radio at the time—“I got drunk and I got sick” and all that stuff from the second verse, we put all that stuff back in.


SC: We needed something dark. We both tend toward the dark, but we needed something darker. So Steve said he had these B minor chord changes and we started on something. I can’t remember how it transpired chronologically, but it’s a pretty even split—a lyrical co-write and a musical co-write. It’s the rock song of the record. It’s also the toughest song of the record and the darkest song of the record so, of course, I love it.


SC: “Raise the Dead” is an Emmylou Harris song. She’s an under-appreciated songwriter and writes some amazing stuff. I always loved “Raise the Dead” and I thought it could be a good duo song because of the repeat phrase at the end of each verse: “I’ll never get out of your love alive.” It’s just brilliant. Going through Hank Williams, Sam Cooke, Bill Monroe and Robert Johnson, and tying it into this little surprise tagline, which is: “I’m just never going to get out of this relationship alive.”


SC: Oh, “You’re Still Gone” was one of the early ones we wrote, and the germ of that came from Julie Miller. She gave it to me— the first two verses—two years ago or so. I had written two more verses and I knew it needed something else, so I brought it to Steve and he wrote the choruses, so it’s a triad co-write. It’s pretty much split three ways evenly, and the real heartbreaker of the record, so we closed the record with it.

SE: “You’re Still Gone” was finished in Austin at Shawn’s house. After we finished “Tell Moses,” she said, “I have this piece of a song that Julie Miller and I started.” Julie gave her a classic Julie Miller melody— she’s one of the best songwriters I know. So I’ve got my name on several songs with Shawn Colvin and one with Shawn Colvin and Julie Miller out of the deal. I was pretty proud of that. We finished it that day in the room.