Stacey Earle,
Simple Gearle
(Gearle Records, 1998)

Take yourself back to a simple time when the photographs all were in black and white, folk music was acoustic and albums showed scratches after multiple playings. Ignore the clothes dryer vent sneaking onto the CD booklet's back cover. Forget the fact that you know this artist is Steve Earle's sister.

Instead, listen to the initial scratchy needle noises on "Waiting," the opening track on Stacey Earle's debut release. With only Earle's voice and guitar on this very short (1:46) song, it's as if she has created a prologue while waiting for her audience to settle down and listen.

She's joined not only by her listeners but also her band, the Jewels (named after her paternal grandmother), on the second track, "Wedding Night," about a young woman eagerly awaiting post-nuptial bliss. The guitar sets the song in the Americana genre, but it's a gentle feel. There isn't too much "twang" to Earle's softly-accented voice either. For those who need comparisons made, I found it only slightly reminiscent of Nanci Griffith or, at times, perhaps Iris Dement. Earle's is a deceptively simple voice that can wrap itself around her lyrics and thrust them directly into her listeners' hearts, as accomplished in "Tears That She Cries" and "Next Door Down." The latter song in particular is interesting in how it has an almost Spanish-feeling guitar introduction that leads into a "sing-song" rhythm.

However, despite the simple voice and melodies, Earle communicates. She rolls back angry growls in "Cried My Heart Out." On "Show Me How," a song in which she yearns for personal strength, she expresses her frustrations through her voice and guitar as she admits that "I am my worst enemy." "In My Way," perhaps the emotional follow-up to "Show Me How," reveals that she has regained her confidence. Here, she clearly states that "I have nothing standing in my way."

Brother Steve Earle adds his voice on the chorus of "Losers Weep." His rougher voice is quite a contrast to Stacey's gentler tones, but it's not particularly disconcerting. Each sibling has an individual voice and style.

Hers may not be to everyone's liking. I know that Americana music often rings too much of "country/western" in some folk circles. "If It Weren't For You" may be too plaintive and country-sounding for some folk aficionados. I almost wrote off "Silly You" as a "typical" country-style song (whatever that is) until she reached the lines that have to be rushed in order to fit the rhythm. Then the song felt more conversational to me; it was one lover talking with another. And "Simple Gearle," the title track, merely continues that discussion. Her fairly staccato endings on that song's chorus seem to drive home the message that she doesn't need material items from this man.

No material goods and a simple life are the messages from this woman whose life has not been all that easy. She's been divorced, a single mom and a Nashville songwriter. And through all of that, she apparently has picked up universal themes for her lyrics. "Just Another Day," the final track, resonates with Andrea Zonn's viola as Earle closes the album and her observations on life. "It was just another day, but I've enjoyed it anyway," she sings. Yes, it was a typical day -- and such a universal one that playwright Thornton Wilder could have recorded it in Our Town.

Earle may be too country for some and too acoustic for others. Her musical arrangements are bare and stark compared to the expansive electrical ones found today even on some Americana recordings. However, listening to this album made me want to slow down, relax and savor the moment. I had a fleeting glimpse of music from a seemingly simpler era, complete with contemporary anachronisms: clothes dryer vents in photos, mentions of traffic jams and interstate highways in lyrics. Simple Gearle blends the old with the new in a rather satisfactory way.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]

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