When you ask multiple Grammy Award winner Shawn Colvin what drew her to tour with country music rabble-rouser Steve Earle, her explanation is simple:
“I am always looking to share a stage with people who are fun,” she says. “Steve was the first name on my list, and fortunately he was open to it. Our schedules matched up, and that’s how it came about. I couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Fans in the Triangle are thrilled as well, since their two-week tour makes a stop in Durham Thursday night at the Carolina Theatre. With only 10 stops currently scheduled for the short run of concerts, the two long-time friends promise to captivate crowds with songs from throughout each others’ catalogs, as well as selections from other classic songwriters.
The female singer-songwriter, best known for her 1997 radio hit “Sunny Came Home,” explains that she has always surrounded herself with the music of others. “I’m just a fan of other people’s songs,” she says. “I came to songwriting relatively late in my career, so I really made my living from covering other artists’ arts and craft.
“I have always loved covering folk songs, pop songs, country songs, you name it. It’s the way that I first learned to play and perform music, and I’ve just always enjoyed it. I did it for so long, and arranged some familiar songs in ways that I thought were unusual and different than the original version, that they became near and dear to my heart. I still enjoy presenting those songs to my audience.”
Colvin and Earle have named their tour “Songs and Stories, Together Onstage.” While the night is destined to include memorable stories from the two greats, the story of how and where the two met has some holes.
“We met a long time ago, probably about 20 years ago, at a music festival that I can’t recall the name of,” she says. “I had known of him for much longer than that, just as a fan, ever since he started making records.”
While the two have a rough idea of what they would like to accomplish on this tour, Colvin is a strong believer in allowing inspiration to drive a concert. “There has to be an element of spontaneity onstage,” she explains. “We will be concentrating on our own music, but also telling stories about other artists and their music, so the conversations need to come together organically.
“That is better than planning it all out weeks in advance,” she says with a laugh, “so I’m not worried about putting together an official set list just yet.”
Building a career
Colvin has definitely allowed her career to develop organically.
She first picked up a guitar at age 10, and it was clear she had talent. Later, the South Dakota native bounced around the music scenes in Austin, Texas, and Berkeley, Calif., before joining the Buddy Miller Band in New York in 1980. Colvin filled the void for the band when lead singer Miller left the group. Rechristened The Shawn Colvin Band, the act soon began taking on the folk music sound of its new lead singer.
Even though she has been surrounded by such Americana giants as Miller and Earle, Colvin has never been interested in crossing over into country music.
“I just think that the music my fans like to hear coming from me is folk,” she says. “Buddy produced my last album, ‘All Fall Down,’ and it has more of a country sound to it, but that wasn’t intentional; it’s not like I sat down and said, ‘Oh, it’s time that I try to make a country record now.’ I love country, but crossing genres isn’t something that really interests me. It would just be one more singer-songwriter cutting a country album, looking for success there.”
Success is something that hasn’t come easy for Colvin. Despite the Grammy Awards and radio play, the singer has felt the changes that the Internet age has brought to the music industry; after nearly two decades working under the Columbia Records label, Colvin signed with the smaller Nonesuch Records.
“I think these days the major label record companies are much more likely to look for the quick one-hit artist,” she says. “Things have changed so much for artists like me, where it would be harder to get radio play these days for a young folk artist than it was in the early ’90s. It’s one of the reasons I left Columbia; I just felt that there wasn’t a place for an artist like me there anymore. I don’t consider myself a ‘hit’ type artist, and I don’t think they really did either, so their attention went toward others who offered those hits. I just didn’t see much point in staying.”
In the end, Colvin offers some career advice to young artists starting out today:
“I think it comes down to a couple of things, with one being the fact that when I first started out in music I took to the road and played all over the world to promote myself. I believe I really was able to create a strong bond with my fans that way, and I think Steve has a similar story.
“And then, I like to think that I offer quality work, and that helps bring fans in, too.”