ENGLEWOOD, N.J. -- Steve Earle warms when a longtime fan says he'd never seen him smile as much as in the publicity stills for the tour that brings him and fellow singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin to bergenPAC in Englewood this Wednesday.
" I've probably never seen me smile as much," said Earle, a musician known as much as anything for his social advocacy. "The irony is that Shawn, who's always smiling, looks so serious.
"This is an opportunity for Shawn to rock out a bit, be more intense. And I can tell you: She's enjoying it."
Separate-act duos most times will swap songs and knock out covers. Colvin and Earle -- both of whom are just into their 60s -- do it differently.
After the Grammy winner asked her pal to join her for a week of folk-based shows in late 2014, they realized his troubadour strum-and-twang blended nicely with her sweet, subtle phrasing.
"This started out like whitewashing a fence," Earle told Daily Voice. "I'd sing a song, Shawn would sing a song and then we'd sing a song together. It was the way we sang together that made me want to write for these two voices."
Next thing they knew, they were collaborating.
"My band is not a democracy," Earle said of his occasional touring outfit, the Dukes. "I listen to what they have to say -- then I either agree or I don't. There's no negotiating.
"This was completely different."
Time off is a rarity for touring musicians, but both Colvin and Earle had a couple days free when they connected in Nashville, where he still has a house. They also did some work at Colvin's home in Austin and, later, at Earle's Greenwich Village apartment.
"It took us several months," Earle said. "A lot of it was written on telephone and computers, bouncing back and forth, while I was on a bus and she was in an airport."
They also chose one cover each.
Earle went for the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday," which he said he "learned to play tennis racquet to" when he was young. Colvin went for the metallic stomp of "Tobacco Road," a 1964 hit for the Nashville Teens.
The recording itself took a week and a half.
Produced by longtime mutual friend (and album collaborator) Buddy Miller, "Colvin & Earle" sparked the current summer-into-fall tour.
"It's not the easiest thing in the world," Earle said. "You have two artists who've been making records for a long time and two management companies having to work together. It's like a three-legged race."
It makes for a unique dynamic onstage, as well, as Earle modulates and Colvin's voice rises in intensity.
"Buddy [Miller] calls it 'taking a step toward each other',” Earle said.
Traditional duos have centered on struggles between the sexes -- exes George Jones and Tammy Wynette immediately come to mind. But with nine divorces (seven for him) and a pair of overcome addictions between them, Colvin (alcohol) and Earle (heroin) are a musical metaphor for the strength of selfless friends as partners.
“We have a language that comes from recovery and 12-step programs that not everybody speaks,” he said.
Earle, as Colvin will tell you, is a constant multi-tasker. His acting credits include critically-lauded work on David Simon's "The Wire" and "Treme" and in other films and TV shows. One of his favorite pieces of work was also one of the least known -- Hank Bedford's 2015 indie "Dixieland," in which Earle plays the protagonist's indigent, understanding uncle.
The separate-act duo allows him and Colvin to also continue their respective musical careers.
Whenever he's flying solo -- delivering literary folk rock, country, bluegrass and blues, as well as bittersweet love-gone-wrong songs -- Earle continues to decry the death penalty and emphasize the need for gun control.
"I grew up shooting and hunting, so I wasn't exactly used to thinking the way I do now," he said. "But things have changed.
"I had a party years ago where we had some tequilas and were shooting targets on fences. My wife at the time was in the bathroom and a bullet went right through the wall and over her head.
"What people don't understand is that because anybody can get guns, EVERYBODY's in danger."
Touring with Colvin, Earle keeps the activism to a minimum.
"I'll say something now and then," he said. "But this show is about these songs.
"We both have lives and we're both parents and we bring all that stuff wherever we go," Earle said. "So there's a lot of joy in this show."
CLICK HERE for tickets to Wednesday's 8 p.m. bergenPAC performance.
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