“You can’t know how much it means to me to be in this room with you guys.”
Shawn Colvin is onstage at Cactus Cafe, playing to a full house at the intimate University of Texas venue that holds about 150 people. She’s just finished playing “Steady On,” her 1989 debut album, from start to finish, solo acoustic. It’s an emotional moment for the Austin singer-songwriter, but also for her fans, a few of whom were in this room with her when she brought the “Steady On” tour here 30 years ago.
The Sept. 5 concert, one of many special shows the Cactus has presented in 2019 as part of a yearlong 40th-anniversary celebration, was tied to the release of “Steady On: 30th Anniversary Acoustic Edition.” Out Sept. 13, it’s a freshly recorded re-examination of the album’s 10 songs recorded with vocals and guitar only, a bit like making demos for an album well after the fact. These new versions offer fascinating reflections of the material and the artist, viewed through a three-decade lens.
A masterful debut that earned Colvin a Grammy for best contemporary folk album in 1991, “Steady On” has worn the years well, and it adapts favorably to the solo-acoustic treatment. Revered for her songwriting and possessing an instantly recognizable voice, Colvin is also an extraordinarily good guitarist, something clearly evident in the simultaneously rhythmic and lyrical playing on the standout track “Diamond in the Rough” (which became the title of her 2012 autobiography).
Other tracks on the 30th-anniversary edition shine in ways they hadn’t on the original. The album-closing “Dead of the Night” feels deeper and more personal, while “Something to Believe In” — one of several tracks recorded in a different key, to accommodate the changes in her voice across time — feels even more resolute in its assurance of reasons to keep the faith: “There will always be stars in the wind, little lines on your face when you grin."
IN A WAY, this new take on “Steady On” brings Colvin full-circle to the reckoning point that set her career as a singer-songwriter in motion. After a peripatetic stretch from the mid-1970s through the early ’80s that included a couple of years in Austin before she moved back home to Illinois, then to San Francisco and finally New York City, Colvin had a revelation that seems obvious in retrospect: She was, at heart, a singer-songwriter.
“I realized at some point, THIS is what I do: I play guitar and sing,” she recalled to the Cactus crowd last week. But, she added, there was one major difference between her heroes such as Joni Mitchell and James Taylor: “They write, and I don’t.”
LISTEN — Shawn Colvin on how she realized she should be a songwriter:
“Steady On” was the result of a personal vow to change that. Colvin already was an accomplished musician. When she came to Austin in October 1976 — her first night here, she saw Ry Cooder at Armadillo World Headquarters — it was as a member of Dixie Diesels, a band from Carbondale, Illinois, that moved en masse to Texas. Among the musicians she met here was the now revered guitarist/producer Buddy Miller, who later ended up in New York and, in 1980, asked Colvin to join his band there.
Austin mandolin ace Paul Glasse, who befriended Colvin during her years here, remembers visiting her in New York in the early 1980s with his friend Gary Hartman, who’s now the director of the Center for Texas Music at Texas State University. One night they made a three-part-harmony recording on cassette of “Don’t You Think I Feel It Too” by Uncle Walt’s Band, a trio Colvin had fond memories of seeing in Austin clubs in the ’70s. It’s a song she still frequently plays onstage, including at the Cactus last week.
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Getting sober in 1983 was a big turning point for Colvin, but she quit playing music for about a year in the mid-1980s before finally resolving to become a songwriter. She’d been working for years with John Leventhal (who’s now married to Rosanne Cash), a gifted musical composer who frequently gave her in-progress material that didn’t yet have lyrics.
She decided that “the next time John gave me a piece of music, it was kind of do or die,” Colvin said in a mid-August interview at her Austin home. “I felt I had to take that music that was fully produced and deconstruct it down to a guitar part." The result was “Diamond in the Rough,” which jump-started the string of songs that became “Steady On.”
“It was a little scary, which is a good thing, I think,” she continued. "The requirement from then on, at least for the writing of ‘Steady On,’ was that I be able to do these songs by myself.
“So when the idea came up to re-record ‘Steady On’ as just me and my guitar, I’d been doing it that way for years. It seemed to harken back to the way it started and the roots of it.”
Colvin will perform songs from the album at Waterloo Records on Sept. 24 at 5 p.m. as part of HAAM Day, the annual citywide fundraiser benefiting Health Alliance for Austin Musicians. Those who buy a copy of the record at Waterloo will receive a wristband for guaranteed admission.
LISTEN — Shawn Colvin on the new solo acoustic edition of 'Steady On':
AROUND THE TIME she was working on the original album, Colvin returned to Austin to play the Cactus in April 1988. It followed stints with North Carolina roots band the Red Clay Ramblers and studio work that included singing background vocals on her friend Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” a top-5 pop hit in the summer of 1987. At the Cactus last week, she remembered touring Europe as a member of Vega’s band later that year: “We played Wembley (stadium), I met the king and queen of Sweden, and I met Twisted Sister.”
Colvin doesn’t remember much about the 1988 Cactus gig, but a subsequent show there in December 1989 on the “Steady On” tour stands out. “It was sort of a ‘local girl makes good,’ I think was my feeling,” she said. “I’d come back to this place that I love; I was kind of scuffling along when I was here, and this great thing happened.
“I remember saying it was the best gig of the tour. There’s just nothing like a supportive Austin audience. You feel like they know what they’re talking about. It’s such a music town; they don’t suffer fools. So I just remember being on top of the world, basically.”
At one point that night, she even told the crowd, “That’s it, I’m moving to Austin.” It took a little while, but a few years later she did just that. A turning point, she says, was when her sister, who’d gone to college at UT, moved back here from Los Angeles in the early 1990s. Another enticement came when Colvin taped “Austin City Limits” for the first time in 1991. “I think every time I came back, it planted a seed,” she says.
LISTEN — Shawn Colvin on her memories of 1970s Austin venue the Split Rail:
She was an Austinite when she had her biggest night at the Grammys in 1998, taking home song of the year and record of the year honors for “Sunny Came Home,” the top-10 single from her 1996 album “A Few Small Repairs.” After moving here, Colvin appeared on “Austin City Limits” several more times, enough to warrant her inclusion in this year’s Austin City Limits Hall of Fame class.
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She’ll be inducted along with Lyle Lovett and Buddy Guy in an Oct. 24 concert and ceremony at ACL Live. Jackson Browne, Bruce Hornsby and Sarah Jarosz will play a few of her songs, and Colvin will perform with renowned bassist Larry Klein (who produced her 1992 album “Fat City”) and guitarist Steuart Smith. The two musicians supported Colvin on tour for a couple of years in the early-mid 1990s, and she’s clearly thrilled at the chance to reunite with them for the show.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been with such a tight, well-oiled machine that still had soul,” she says. “We sounded like more than three people. And then Steuart joined the Eagles, Larry moved on to other projects, and we have never been able to reunite, hard as we’ve tried. But they were both available, and it means a lot to me. It’s going to be great.”
LET’S HEAD BACK to Cactus Cafe for the finale. After playing all 10 songs from “Steady On” in sequence, Colvin took things in a different direction. “I love playing covers, if you don’t mind,” she said, signaling a special treat for the final four songs of the night. One of the best living interpreters of other artists’ material, Colvin has done two albums of other artists’ songs: 1994’s “Cover Girl” and 2015’s “Uncovered.”
On this night, she began with an exquisitely melancholy version of the Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back” before starting but ultimately skipping a Jimmy Webb tune in favor of a local turn with that old Uncle Walt’s Band favorite, “Don’t You Think I Feel It Too.” That and Rowland Salley’s gorgeous “Killing the Blues” harkened back to the Cactus gig from 30 years ago, when she’d played both of those tunes. The perfect closer was the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody),” a song Colvin has transformed so completely that she’s made it entirely her own.
But it’s ultimately her acoustic performances of the songs from “Steady On” that linger, well after the magic evening. Colvin’s first record was long in coming, but every song on it was a keeper. It’s one of the best debut albums ever made, something the new 30th-anniversary edition underscores even as it extends the original’s legacy.
“This was my dream come true,” she confided to the crowd at the Cactus. “I was 32 years old, and this was it: If I’d never made another record besides ‘Steady On,’ that would be OK. That’s how much it means to me.”
LISTEN — Shawn Colvin on recording with Doc Pomus in the 1980s: