Singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin can hold her own when country requests are shouted up to the stage. Years ago, she was booked at a state fair in the Midwest, billed underneath a tractor pull.
"And the words 'Tractor Pull' were a lot bigger than my name," she recalls during a phone conversation from her home in Austin, Texas. Yet she considers that night a success -- partly because she sang a bunch of her favorite Merle Haggard songs.
"It was a great night," she says. "People came to see me. A lot of them really did come to see me, and they couldn't have been a better audience. It was a really great night, but I'd never played a state fair before, so I didn't know what to expect," she says. "I just thought that I was going to play to a country audience and that I wanted them to know I was a fan. I don't know if it was necessary, but I'm glad that I knew country music."
Born in South Dakota, Colvin was raised in Carbondale, Ill., and grew up listening to folk music. One of her first gigs was with a country band out of Illinois, but in 1980 she joined a band led by Buddy Miller, which led her to New York City. She still remembers quitting for a year before her career finally took off.
"It wasn't so much that [I thought], 'This is too hard and I can't do it anymore,'" she says. "It was, 'I never thought I could do anything else. Maybe I can. Maybe I should look at myself as a more diverse person and see myself as more whole and ask myself if there's anything else that I want to do.' But there wasn't."
She remembers her first visit to Nashville in the 1980s as a member of the Red Clay Ramblers. They played at the Exit/In, a popular club, and surely fielded requests, as almost any bluegrass band will.
"You had to do 'Orange Blossom Special,' which is kind of a song that if you've been in a country band, you really don't care if you ever play again," she says. "But it was required -- right about the middle of the four-hour stint you were playing when people were drunk but still functional. That's when you had to play 'Orange Blossom Special.'"
Eventually, Colvin started playing regularly in listening rooms and found an appreciative audience at tiny Club Passim in Cambridge, Mass. That's where she picked up her knack for telling stories while tuning her guitar.
"It was kind of the first time I was performing my own material and people were really there to listen," she remembers. "I had to learn how to keep the show going and do some talking."
Now her ongoing commentary with the audience is one of the main reasons her fans flock to her concerts. Before singing "Sunny Came Home" on her newest album, Live, she strums a little and dryly says, "And then after all that sensitive stuff, sometimes you've just got to write a murder ballad." That signature song went on to win two Grammys and her 1997 album, A Few Small Repairs, was certified platinum for shipments of 1 million copies.
There are several moments on Live, such as "Trouble," where Colvin seems to be playing lead guitar, rhythm guitar and percussion all at once. The lyrics are somewhat self-destructive ("You don't have to drag me down/I descend"), yet Colvin says she isn't thinking much about the words when she performs the song.
"It's kind of a fast song, and it requires some dexterity when you play it," she says. "So, just to keep the rhythm going, my mind's on that a lot, and if I'm playing it well."
She believes that playing guitar in that manner comes naturally, but it certainly doesn't hurt that she's been practicing the instrument since she was 10.
"When I was coming up in the clubs and dives, I thought, 'Well, one way maybe I can set myself apart is to try to make the guitar playing interesting and not just adequate,'" she says. "The best way I could think of doing that was to be percussive with it."
Colvin recorded her first live album in 1988, selling cassettes at shows before she released her official debut, Steady On, in 1989. That album won a Grammy for best contemporary folk recording and remains among her most enduring work. Indeed, three of its songs -- "Shotgun Down the Avalanche," "Ricochet in Time" and "Diamond in the Rough" -- have resurfaced on Live, recorded over three nights of solo acoustic concerts at the San Francisco club, Yoshi's, in July 2008.
Live begins with "Polaroids," which is also the lead track from 1992's Fat City. It's a breakup song with deeper implications as the lead character is trying to survive in New York City as a musician. She says performing the song can take her back to that time in her career and offers this advice to those brave musicians just starting out: "Don't give up. You have to know in your heart this is what you want to do because paying your dues is not easy."
In the decade since A Few Small Repairs, Colvin has only released a handful of albums, yet has managed to sustain her profile in unique ways. She's been a guest voice on The Simpsons (as a Christian singer who briefly dated Ned Flanders) and appeared as herself on the cable comedy series, The Larry Sanders Show. Along with plenty of her own dates (and training for triathlons), she's also been traveling with Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller as part of the Three Girls and Their Buddy Tour.
"Buddy and Emmylou are obviously pretty well versed in country music, but Patty and I know our way around it, too," she says. "All of us end up doing a cover of something country whether we like it or not. It just kind of happens that way."