The rapport between Stacey Earle and her husband, Mark Stuart, is only just now getting shared billing but the two have worked together for quite some time. Not only have they been married since 1994, but Stuart has played in Earle’s band and produced her first two albums. Together, the two have made music with the requisite amounts of singer/songwriter introspection, but the collaboration has also made Earle come across as a giddy schoolgirl. And rightfully so. One listen to Must be Live makes it immediately apparent that Mark Stuart makes Stacey Earle very happy.
As a live document of the pair’s acoustic shows, Must be Live features plenty of spoken interludes and exchanges between Earle and Stuart. Whenever Earle talks about or two Stuart, you can practically hear the blushing smile spread across her face. Several times during the set, she remarks, “he’s a keeper”. That might initially sound too sugary for words, but the pair come across very well and it’s hard to begrudge them their good moods. As a voices-and-acoustic-guitar duo, they complement each other well, providing harmonies here or there, and not getting in the way of each others’ strumming and fingerpicking. Pretty much all of Earle’s best songs are here, from “Cried my Heart Out” to “Dancin’ With Them That Brung Me” to “How I Ran”. Live, Earle vocally resembles Nanci Griffith as much as she always has, but here, her songs gain a liveliness and immediacy that didn’t always make it to Simple Gearle or Dancin’ With Them That Brung Me. Perhaps that’s Stuart’s influence, who during this period became more of an acknowledged songwriting partner.
The set gets off to a bit of a slow start, but by roughly halfway through the first disc (with “Losers Weep”), Earle and Stuart find their stride. “Next Door Down” is an excellent example of their guitar and vocal interplay, while “Lorraine” is a nice solo turn from Stuart addressing the assassination of Martin Luther King. “Sitar Town” (cleverly titled as a nod towards Earle’s brother Steve Earle) is a brief but enjoyable instrumental, and “Just Another Day” is a perfect, bittersweet closer with its imagery of empty houses and changing habits after the kids have gone. Overall, Must be Live does a pretty good job of balancing the serious and tender with the humorous and lighthearted (the “Harper Valley PTA”-like cadence of “Wedding Night” is a particular treat).
As enjoyable as Must Be Live is, two discs of purely acoustic material can cause the mind to wander a little bit, for all the good-natured “luuuv” and sympathetic musicianship. After you’ve heard the between-song stories a few times, you’ll probably want to skip over them in favor of hearing the songs straight through. Not because the stories are bad, but because Must be Live reveals a hidden momentum in the song selection. As you work through the album, things gradually become more serious and probing, so that by record’s end, Earle and Stuart reveal themselves to be much more sophisticated songwriters than they appear to be when the set begins. They would end up following that sophistication through a variety of previously unexplored styles on this year’s satisfying studio effort Never Gonna Let You Go. It’s too early to tell if Never Gonna Let You Go represents a true sea change in styles for Earle and Stuart; if it does, though, Must be Live is a fine, gentle encapsulation of the duo’s collaborations up to that point.