After seven failed attempts, Steve Earle might have finally found a way to make marriage work: He brought his new wife on the road with him.
The alt-country hero and outspoken radical married fellow singer/songwriter Allison Moorer in 2005, after she toured with him as an opener. The couple now share the stage and essentially everything else on tour.
Washington Square Serenade
(New West; US: 25 Sep 2007; UK: Available as import)
(New Line; US: 19 Feb 2008; UK: 18 Feb 2008)
“It’s not effortless, but it’s easier than being away from each other for months on end,” Earle said of their travels.
Earle’s junior by 18 years, Moorer, 35, concurred about the practicality of pairing their careers and personal lives. She also brought up another benefit of touring together.
“Having me on the bill brings some younger girls out to the shows who wouldn’t otherwise go see him, so he’s happy about that,” she quipped. “His audiences look a little better now.”
Marrying Moorer had a brightening effect on Earle’s music, too. After two politically steaming records, the singer took a relatively lighter approach on his latest, “Washington Square Serenade,” which won him another Grammy for best contemporary folk album last month. As he described the record, “It’s largely love songs for Allison Moorer and New York City.”
Earle and Moorer moved into an apartment in Greenwich Village soon after their wedding. They live in the heart of the `60s folk scene on Jones Street, where Bob Dylan posed with then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo for the album cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned German tourists around and pointed them in the right direction to reenact that cover,” Earle said.
Both singers talked by phone two weeks ago from their other home near Nashville, where Earle was finishing up production of a new Joan Baez album before resuming the tour.
After briefly living in New York in 2004 - “basically so I could (mess) with the Republican Convention” - Earle said he always wanted to return.
“Having the other person’s income made it financially feasible to live there, although just barely. When we’re on tour we’re living in a bus, which is about the same size as our place in New York, so we feel right at home.”
Earle paints a picture of their life in the new album’s opening track, “Tennessee Blues,” when he sings, “Cross the mighty Hudson River to the New York City side/Redhead by my side, boys, sweetest thing I’ve found/Goodbye guitar town” - a reference both to Nashville and the debut album that put him on the map 21 years ago. He goes on to muse about cutthroat Manhattan life in “Down Here Below,” pays tribute to NYC folk hero Pete Seeger in “Steve’s Hammer (For Pete)” and uses the city’s history to shun Lou Dobbs’ crew in “City of Immigrants.”
Two other tunes - “Sparkle and Shine” and “Come Home To Me” - are unabashed loved songs. Just as politics filled his previous two albums, the romantic stuff worked its way onto this record, Earle said: “I can only make art about the things going on around me.”
“I was at a point where I thought I was going to be single for the rest of my life,” he said. “Part of the problem before was I always wanted to be in a relationship a little bit too badly. I’d force the issue. In this case, it wasn’t anything either of us was looking for. It was just kind of undeniable.”
So, is the fact that Moorer is a fellow artist and road hound the ingredient that was missing from his other marriages?
“That might be a part of it, but probably a bigger thing is the fact that I’m not an alcoholic or a heroin addict anymore,” he said. (Earle notoriously spent four months in jail before kicking heroin in 1994. He just wrapped up a true-to-life role as a recovered addict on HBO’s “The Wire.”)
“Trust me, when you’ve been married as many times as I have, you figure out that you’re at least part of the problem.”
Before marrying Earle (her second husband), Moorer had built up her own sturdy fan base and critical acclaim with five albums of modern, folky but fiery country music. Her breakout song was “A Soft Place to Fall” from the `Horse Whisperer’ soundtrack, which she performed at the Academy Awards in 1999. She also sang with Kid Rock in the first version of his hit “Picture,” which was later released with Sheryl Crow.
Moorer’s latest record, “Mockingbird,” is a covers album featuring songs by other female artists, including Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Gillian Welch, Patti Smith and Moorer’s big sister, twangy soul singer Shelby Lynne (whom she calls “Sissy”).
“I had written and recorded five albums over the course of about seven or eight years, so I was a little bit tired of that process at the time I was getting ready to record again,” Moorer recalled. “I also felt like I wanted to go back to school in a way. One of the best ways for me to learn about songs is to work with other people’s songs and figure out how to make them work.”
Two of the most interesting tracks are remakes of June Carter Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and modern-rocker Cat Power’s “Where Is My Love” - one a seemingly all-too-predictable selection, the other a surprise pick.
“I’m a big fan of (Cat Power) and how she works in what I consider a really traditional blues form but with her own twist,” Moorer said. As for “Ring of Fire,” she explained, “I always thought it was a really beautiful song, but it had never much been recorded in a beautiful way. The best-known versions are very masculine, like, obviously, Johnny Cash’s and then the Social Distortion version.”
Moorer performs her own set, then joins Earle later in the show. Even though she has never been a very topical singer, and he has backed off politics somewhat, don’t expect the couple to stay quiet as the presidential election heats up.
Earle, however, is keeping mum on the candidate he hopes will get his vote.
“A friend of mine at a political function in Tennessee really wanted me to get my picture taken with Al and Tipper Gore, and they pretty much levitated to trying to avoid it,” he said, laughing.
“It does make a difference to me if it’s Clinton or Obama, but I won’t publicly go on record to say which one I prefer. I’ve learned it probably doesn’t benefit the candidate for me to do that.”