There's all sorts of advice you might expect an alt-country outlaw like Steve Earle to give a family member following in his footsteps. Things like how to survive in Nashville without sacrificing your artistic integrity, or how to write songs that'll get you mentioned in the same breath with Townes Van Zandt and Woody Guthrie. Maybe even a few tips on how to stay out of jail.
What's not so easy to picture is Steve Earle convincing his niece Emily to compete on NBC's slick, gimmick-ridden sing-off, The Voice.
"I had never even watched the show before," says Emily Earle, who was invited to audition on the strength of her YouTube videos. "I was getting ready to move to Nashville, so I almost didn't do it. Even my mom said there was like a one-in-a-million chance they'll take you and you'll keep going. But my Uncle Steve and my Aunt Allison [Moorer] were the ones who said, 'You can't turn down that. Just try it. It can't be that bad.'"
So Earle, a Colorado Springs native who's playing two homecoming shows this week, ended up making her first appearance on the show last October.
"The one thing that was great about The Voice is that I got to cover a Johnny Cash tune," says the singer-songwriter, whose rendition of "Ring of Fire" got Cee-Lo to pick her for his team. "So that put me a little outside of the Shania Twain realm to start with."
And after that?
"I didn't get too far," she says with a laugh. "I made it to the battle round. They actually put you on a stage that looks like a boxing ring. And they hold up the arm of the winner."
Earle's sparring partner was MacKenzie Bourg, a Harry Potter/Justin Bieber look-alike who was equally perplexed when the two singers were assigned Carly Rae Jepsen and Owl City's bubbly pop confection, "Good Time," complete with "Whoa-oh-oh-oh" hooks and the timeless couplet "Freaked out, dropped my phone in the pool again / Checked out of my room, hit the ATM."
"We got it and we just sat there going, 'What are we supposed to do with this?' A chorus of 'Ohs.'"
The new country
While Earle's teen-pop moment came and went in a flash, being eliminated from the show freed her up to focus on songwriting. It's something the Pine Creek High School grad has pursued since attending the Berklee College of Music.
"The summer after graduating from high school," she says, "I went to Boston for college and just never moved back." Earle also performed in subways while interning at Warner Music in New York City. But for an artist interested in country music, moving to Nashville seemed inevitable.
"Co-writing in Nashville has helped me a lot, because you're stuck in a room with a person, and before either of you leave that room, you have to finish a song."
Of the songwriters she's worked with so far, the best-known is, not surprisingly, Steve Earle. In addition to touring as her uncle's opening act, she's co-written a few songs with him. Among them is the title cut from her debut CD, News From Colorado, which is being released just in time for her hometown shows.
"When I first started writing, I found myself hitting walls a lot," admits Earle. "I would hold on to one specific phrase, melody or line that I really liked. Even if it didn't fit in the song, I would try to force it to."
Working with her uncle, she says, helped change all that. "I learned that if something isn't working, then try a different approach rather than settling for an OK rhyme or idea. With News From Colorado, I realized that using specific ideas, rather than general ones, helps people put themselves in the song."
There are no submerged smartphones or hotel ATMs on Earle's CD, but there are lines like, "Mama only says the things that Daddy says she should / The news from Colorado's never good." And while that might not get Carly Rae's publisher excited, it does fit nicely with the current wave of more conscious country music.
"One of the more recent artists I'm really into is Kacey Musgraves," says Earle of the artist whose "Merry Go 'Round" became a country radio hit despite its sharp critique of small-town hypocrisy.
"I think there's a large group of people, especially in Nashville, who've been waiting for that kind of writing to break through," says the artist, who's also a big fan of Gillian Welch and Brandi Carlile. "I was speaking to [Nashville producer] Ray Kennedy — me, Steve and him were in the studio while he was mixing one of the tracks I did with Steve that's not on the EP. And he was saying that Nashville kind of goes in waves, and every once in a while it'll have an edgy wave where you'll see people who normally would never get on the radio. And he feels that with Kacey Musgraves' album coming out, that's the wave that'll be coming up for the next couple years. So this should be an interesting time for a songwriter."
As Charlotte Gainsbourg or James McCartney can tell you, fans typically expect the heirs to a musician's legacy to have a similar sound. Look at John Lennon's kids: On the one hand, you have Julian Lennon, who scored hit singles, as well as a Best New Artist Grammy nomination, for sounding a lot like his dad. And then you've got Sean Lennon, who didn't.
But for Earle, there's the added challenge of attracting two very different audiences, each with its own set of expectations.
News From Colorado's title track naturally echoes the singer-songwriterly material of its co-writer, but an original song like "Say Goodbye" is no less compelling.
"I actually got to play 'Say Goodbye' — which is a song I wrote that Steve kind of helped arrange — at his encores, and his audiences really seemed to like that one. I got a lot of emails after it."
Still, viewers of The Voice aren't entirely left out in the cold on Earle's EP, which has already been made available for streaming on her Bandcamp page. While the glitzy pop and showy melisma that drives television ratings may be conspicuously absent, there are still enough contemporary country elements to court a crossover audience.
"I do try to write songs like 'Tell Me Now' to counter the others, so that I can please both sides of the spectrum," says Earle. "I've been curious to see what people will say. So far I haven't got any bad comments."
Meanwhile, Earle will continue to play Nashville venues like the Basement, which has hosted artists ranging from Townes Van Zandt to Ke$ha, and to perform Friday nights at a mall that shares the parking lot from the Grand Ole Opry.
"We've been calling it the pre-Opry show," she says with a laugh. "It's not really, but you get a lot of the same people going there."
As for playing the legendary country venue itself, as her uncle has on a number of occasions, Earle remains hopeful.
"I would love to play at the Opry," she says. "I've had a couple really good friends from school who got to do it this year. It's been exciting to watch them get to that point, and it makes me want it even more."