Amid conditions best described as "tornadic," a weathered GMC Suburban pulls into a highway rest stop parking lot just outside Indianapolis. A woman emerges from the truck with a phone pressed to her ear and stops mid-conversation to bring a small, shiny detail to her traveling companion's attention.
"Hey Mark, there's a penny over there!" she exclaims. "These are hard times — you don't pass up a penny on the ground."
Stacey Earle has spent the better part of the last seven weeks on the road with husband and collaborator Mark Stuart, playing the coffeehouses, theaters, festivals and house concerts that comprise the folk/Americana circuit. Little games like "Who Can Spot the Most Change" pass the time on long tours that often take on the feel of family road trips.
Earle and Stuart have been performing together for 17 years and, for each of the last 12, have spent roughly 280 days on the road. Back in February, they slowed down in an emergency lane to watch their Suburban click off the 400,000th mile on its original engine. They've added another 10,000 since, on what they've dubbed the Drive Her 'Til She Drops Tour. And while many were surprised by the duo's announcement that, after this, "the long, heavy touring that has been our trademark will be over," they've also assured fans that their marriage is strong and they'll most likely work on each other's solo projects in the future.
"Like June [Carter] and Johnny [Cash], we stand on stage together every night and take care of each other," says Earle of the duo's 170-gigs-per-year marathons. "We get to the hotel room, we take care of each other. We are driving through the country and I'm nagging at him, 'Wash your hands, wash your hands,' because there's that [swine] flu thing and we're transient."
Earle spent portions of the 1990s playing with brother and country-rock singer/songwriter Steve Earle's backing band, which also included their brother Pat. Just before she married Stuart in 1992, she introduced him to Steve, who would make him part of the Dukes from '95 to '97. The couple began playing together in '98 after Earle released her first solo album, Simple Gearle.
Earle's decision to go folk was practically made for her during her day job as a staff writer at Nashville song factory Ten Ten Music, where her colleagues included Australian country star Keith Urban and Alan Jackson's songwriter, Harley Allen.
"The direction country was taking during the staff-writing gig was a turn that I didn't want to be a part of," Earle says. "It just wasn't what I did. I didn't do it well, and I actually caught the end of true country as it was dying."
Since leaving the Nashville scene behind, Earle and Stuart have recorded three albums together on their Gearle Records label while also producing solo projects. They've converted some family along the way, including one of their two sons from Earle's first marriage, Kyle Mims, who toured with his parents before switching gears and joining metalcore band Evergreen Terrace. With Earle's nephew, Justin Townes Earle, also doing just fine on the folk/Americana circuit, the couple is feeling confident in its move away from commercial country.
"When we go home to Nashville, we have nothing to do with the industry there and we don't spend any of our time even rubbing elbows with artists or industry people," says Stuart. "Our family is really the Americana camp that is out here on the circuit we play."
For the immediate future, the family homestead continues to be the road-tested Suburban. Both partners are also preparing to release new solo albums within the next year, and Earle says it's possible that Kyle will be accompanying her on the next stretch of tours.
"The only thing is, he'll have to turn in his double-kick," Earle says. "'Give me the double-kick, son.'"