Opening with a country-soul ballad that takes the familiar metaphor of stormy weather and makes it personal, and closing with a confession about the absurdity of living the doomed, rock & roll heartbreaker's life, Single Mothers is a series of vignettes drawn from Earle's history, without being strictly autobiographical or naively confessional. On a song such as "My Baby Drives," he gladly gives up the wheel with a nod and a wink and on a deadly serious song like "Wanna Be a Stranger" -- about feeling completely unfamiliar to everyone including yourself -- he slips in some sly humor: "I asked my baby did she love me; she says ask me later."
"Most of my songs are not written about anybody in particular," he reveals. "They are composite characters. Most people are not that interesting. And I'm not afraid to play pretty songs. That whole idea of not crying or being afraid of talking about something does not make you a man. I try to base my songs off of feeling, so that other people can gauge their reactions to those feelings, instead of telling them why or where or who. But there's always a story line, a loose theme going on."
In the end, Single Mothers is a modest but not simple record; the songwriting demonstrates a minimalism that's earned rather than stumbled into. Earle never writes more than the song demands, never makes a false move on the way to the emotional heart of his theme. He's always been, in his words, a "conscious student" of songwriting, but now he sounds like a craftsman. He's writing the kind of songs upon which he really can build one of the great, still-unfolding careers in American music.
"It's rare when I go back to a song and change anything," he says of his process. "I'm so careful about it in the first place. I always have two notebooks: one to jot things down and one to actually write. As far as being a writer or a performer, if there's something you want to write about, study it, get as deep as you can. If you write about something you don't know, it will be obvious. In a lot of songs I hear, there's a lack of study, a lack of wanting to be a writer. People just want to be famous. I want to grow as a musician and not have to make the same records over and over again because that's what people expect."
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