Two for the Road: Shawn Colvin on Collaborating with Steve Earle

Colvin talks touring, songwriting, and the strength of a good cover song

Shawn Colvin has a voice from the heavens. Steve Earle’s gruff spit sounds closer to hell. But the contrast in their glued-together harmonies makes for compelling listening on their new collaboration, Colvin & Earle, produced by longtime friend/collaborator Buddy Miller.

Alexandra Valenti

Colvin and Earle met in 1987 at a show at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts when Colvin, then based in Boston, was tapped to open for Earle. “I was really nervous,” she recalls. “And he was pretty amped and about to go on. And he’s a very formidable guy.”

After years of bumping into each other at festivals and other gigs, Colvin asked Earle to accompany her on a string of tour dates in 2014. Eventually, that led to the recording of Colvin & Earle, a collection of eight songs written together and two covers that properly showcases their strengths as a duo. The pair just launched a U.S. tour in Virginia, where a gushing audience heard all of the new album’s songs as well as hits from both of their careers. Before she left for the road, Colvin talked to Garden & Gun about her love of playing live, the songwriting process with Earle, and their mutual love of the Rolling Stones.

Why did you ask Earle to tour with you in 2014?  

I did a tour with Mary Chapin Carpenter where we swapped songs and told stories. I just really enjoy traveling with someone else and being a back-up musician, singing harmony, playing rhythm guitar. It’s a really nice change from being alone. I had a feeling Steve and I could do it together. He calls it whitewashing the fence, because he says you’re only doing half the work. We’re both onstage together so it’s great to sit behind an amazing songwriter. He never does the same set, so you have to be a student of the songs and it’s a great lesson.


But as it turns out, he was so jazzed about it that he instigated the recording of the album?

Yeah, he said we should do a record. And I said, ‘Great, I should do a record with a lot of people!’ The matching up of schedules is insane. I did an extensive tour under the name Three Girls and their Buddy. It was me, Patti Griffin, Emmylou Harris, and Buddy Miller, and we got pretty good and we always wanted to make a record together, but it never worked out. But Steve, when he sets his mind on something, he makes sure it’s going to happen.


How did the writing process work? Was there a lot of talking through things or just winging it?

There wasn’t much pre-writing discussion at all. One of us would come in with a musical idea and we just kind of suit up and go. We wrote together in Austin, Nashville, and New York, but then took several months more to finish via voicemail, email. It took just a week and half to record, but it took us several months to write the songs.


The song “Tell Moses” is one of the album highlights for me, and there’s a great narrative thread there about overcoming injustice.

Steve brought in the mandolin part first; we both thought the chorus should be kind of a spiritual call and response. A bit of a barnburner, if you will. His idea was to focus on heroes and leaders; Steve brought me into topical songwriting, and it felt great to comb through history with him. It’s not my forte at all. I’m more of the personal, emotional one.


You do a version of the Nashville Teens’ “Tobacco Road” as well as “Ruby Tuesday” by the Stones. Why those two?

I was listening to 60s on 6 on Sirius XM and the Nashville Teens’ version hit me. It’s up-tempo and a lot of fun and I don’t get to do a lot of those types of songs. It has some levity and some edge to it. Steve hates the term duet because that implies you take turns on verses and come together at some point. All of the songs on the record we’re singing together.

With Ruby Tuesday, Steve was really enamored with it, and it’s a great song to duo on and sing harmony. My opinion is just try anything and see what sticks. I’m a big one for covering songs because I fall in love with so many of them. I spent so many years as a cover artist. Some work and some don’t. This one really did. I think we folked it up a bit.