The first thing you’re likely to notice when you listen to Stacey Earle is her backwoods-babychild persona: she has a little-girl voice with a thick-as-cotton Texas accent, and she favors folky arrangements laced with willowy mandolin, crisp acoustic guitar, and the occasional whine of a lap steel. But as she proves on her latest CD, Dancin’ With Them That Brung Me (Gearle), she also possesses the sort of worldliness you can hear in Dolly Parton’s best work: though it’s easy to think of the folk-ballad tradition, with its straightforward spiritual and secular yearning, as mutually exclusive with the mannered bathos of the countrypolitan style, Earle makes it clear that the two are really parts of the same continuum. On “Promise You Anything,” penned by her brother Steve, she sings in an unvarnished hillbilly croon above densely layered backup vocals that sound like a cross between a ghostly children’s choir and a roomful of honky-tonk angels; on “Kiss Her Goodnight” her pristine, innocent-sounding mew dissolves into a warm, sexy purr. And on “No New Shoes,” the tale of a disenchanted romantic draped in bargain-basement castoffs, Earle’s pretty lilt dances above Sheryl Crow’s wheezing harmonium, and the simplicity and clarity of her voice are somehow more poignant than any tortured display of emotion. Opener Chris Mills, by contrast, is as corrosive as Earle is gentle. In the lyrics to “Napkin in a Wine Glass,” from the Chicago-based singer-songwriter’s current disc, Kiss It Goodbye (Sugar Free), a drunk bloodies his girlfriend’s face, and as she crawls to the bathroom she murmurs, “I think I’d let my kids play with guns / Don’t want to raise another one like me.” The country-rock anthem “Brand New Day” lurches between wall-to-wall bombast and bitterly ironic sweetness, while Mills spits on every starry-eyed lyric ever written about morning: “The sun comes creeping in / Gonna get burned again / I’m still fucking up / And all them suckers are cashing in.” He begins “Lips Are Like Poison” with a disarming pop-folk melody, then cuts in with a grotesque portrait of a hellish love affair: “You’ve got bad teeth / In your filthy mouth / I want to touch your face / I’m gonna suck ’em all out.” But he doesn’t undercut every tender gesture with cynicism–on “Watch Chain,” while a pedal steel cries in the background, he sings, “I have changed the locks / On my heart since you were here….Now there are places in my heart / I will never go again.” At this show Mills will play acoustic guitar, accompanied by vocalist Deanna Varagona, who also guests on the CD; Earle will be joined by her husband, Mark Stuart, on guitar. Friday, January 26, 7:30 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Frances Wong/Paul Natkin.