While Must Be Live and Never Gonna Let You Go are Mark Stuart’s first turns sharing the marquee with Stacey Earle, he’s actually been with her all along. The two married in 1994, and Stuart not only produced her two solo albums, but he served in Earle’s backing band, the Jewels. He also played in brother-in-law Steve Earle’s band for a while. Apart from talent, and a helping hand into the industry from her brother, that’s about as far as the similarities between the Earle siblings go. Stacey Earle’s music is decidedly sunnier and more playful than her brother’s, and it’s hard to say how much of that is Mark Stuart’s influence. One thing’s for sure, though: Mark Stuart makes Stacey Earle very happy.
You can hear it straight off the bat on Must Be Live‘s two live discs. It’s not just Stacey Earle’s claim that her husband’s “a keeper”; you can practically hear the blushing smile on her face every time she mentions him or talks to him in the set’s many spoken interludes. 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 other’s 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. Whatever the case, it’s a vibe that carries over to the new studio effort, Never Gonna Let You Go.
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. Never Gonna Let You Go cures that in one fell swoop, introducing a host of styles to which Earle—at least on record—was previously a stranger. In that sense, it’s probably accurate to perceive a complete break between Earle’s two solo records, and the records under both artists’ names.
“Me and the Man in the Moon” starts things off simply enough, with a simple arrangement of tinkly piano, lightly strummed guitar, and warm bass. “If You Want My Love”, though, signals a different mindset. A romantic call-and-response between Stuart and Earle, this bouncy and spry cut finds Stuart singing his parts in an increasingly strained falsetto, and the whole thing culminates in the unmistakable sound of a kazoo. “Maybe That’s Just Me” cuts loose with wobbly saloon-style piano, before kicking off the last section with what sounds like a coach’s whistle. “Fishbowl” gets maximum mileage out of a watery organ tone, and “Our World” bursts forth with some of the brightest roots rock in recent memory. Right out of the gate, Never Gonna Let You Go announces itself as a different beast, covering a handful of country-ish styles before you even know what hit you.
There’s still plenty of room for more traditional singer/songwriter fare, though. “Lay Down” is a rich, evocative lover’s appreciation, with Earle’s repeated whispers of “lay down” sounding both restful and seductive. “Looking for Fool’s Gold” features a twangy growl that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Greg Brown’s bluesier efforts, and “Cry Night after Night” accompanies lyrics of a homecoming with vaguely Tex-Mex strains. By the time Never Gonna Let You Go closes with the straightforward piano ballad, “The Note”, Earle and Stuart have covered every rootsy piece of stylistic ground imaginable. In the end, though, it all sounds like part of a cohesive artistic vision. Stuart and Earle obviously complement each other so well, and feed off of each other creatively, that they’ve made huge strides past the singer/songwriter fare of Earle’s solo albums or the heartfelt meeting of the minds on Must Be Live.
A bonus disc of these songs in progress accompanies Never Let You Go, and they’re certainly interesting; the finished versions, though, far outstrip those relatively bare demos. Never Gonna Let You Go is easily the strongest record so far in Stacey Earle’s career. The fact that Mark Stuart is now her songwriting partner doesn’t detract from that accomplishment at all. Especially after you hear their obvious fondness for each other on Must Be Live, you can immediately tell that these are two songwriters who mesh perfectly.