Despite tough times, very few of us have lived on the streets. And far fewer of us have played Carnegie Hall. In less than a decade, roots musician Justin Townes Earle (JTE) has done both. He has managed his ascent, in part, by deftly sidestepping and outpacing the shadow of his own name. Alt-country renegade/legend Steve Earle is JTE’s father, and the mythically troubled Texan troubadour Townes Van Zandt is his namesake. Discussing the scores of musical clones these two icons inspired, Earle said, “There are a lot of them out there…I figured I just didn’t need to be one of them.” With the rough and tumble earthiness of an old folky who just jumped from a freight train and a casual southern swagger befitting a man who was selected as one of the world’s most stylish by GQ, JTE has cultivated a unique and potent blend of Dust Bowl soul music which seems to have allowed him to transcend everything else.
Sitting in a quiet corner of a Tribeca hotel lobby, JTE opened up about his musical kin. At two, he was already growing up in the cratered aftermath of his father’s departure from the family. The senior Earle’s very public battles with addiction and the pitfalls of fame were constant news in the grapevine town of Nashville, where JTE and his devoted mom lived. There wasn’t a lot of money and he was an easy target. He endured the taunts of other children and was placed in special-education-like classes without cause. Although he also had his share of fun, the deck was stacked against him. “I was the one that was always made example of…I was fucked from the beginning,” he said casually.
Yes, there was drug addiction by age 12 and the skid to homelessness in his early twenties, but this was not to become the hardwired blueprint for his adulthood. It is relatively easy to imagine how an observant, quietly feral kid would encounter some super slick, sharp curves in the road. It is quite a bit harder to imagine how he got from there to where he is today.
There was always the music. By age 11, the guitar was starting to become an extra appendage. “I always knew I wanted to be a singer-songwriter…I always practiced singing and playing guitar together,” he said. Over the ensuing years, JTE absorbed the picking styles of Chet Atkins and Leadbelly and pored through the country catalogue of the 50s and 60s. He also rocked out to Nirvana and The Replacements, but had an innate gift for reinterpreting the old sounds. JTE seemed to naturally mirror many of Woody Guthrie’s inclinations toward homespun realism.
In his teens, JTE knocked around with a couple of local rock and bluegrass bands. He added keyboards to his bag of tricks, but the guitar was where he was emerging as a major force. At 19, JTE was invited to join the senior Earle’s touring band, The Dukes. The elder Earle’s life had rebounded and it should have been a positive reunion for the two, but JTE was eventually let go due to the old excesses. Even a front row seat to the carnage of hardcore addiction does not make one immune.
“I watched my two namesakes destroy themselves very rapidly,” he said. Perhaps the old Freudian dance between father and son or the need to develop the street cred of an outlaw musician are those impossible to grasp dynamics that have been in play through the years. It appears this setback along with some subsequent detours have served as cautionary tales for the steadfast headliner he has slowly become.
Since 2007, JTE has put out five albums of intelligent, self-penned, eclectic twang. There are elements of pre-war blues, traditional country, honky-tonk, Appalachian bluegrass, folk, rockabilly and Memphis soul. No matter the cleverly-refashioned form, all is consistently laid bare. The songs are usually tight economical numbers that start with a polite tip of the hat, but often leave listeners in a reflective state, as if they were unexpectedly party to three minutes of personal skeletons. Two lines into his most recent release, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, JTE sings “I’m skin and bones again.” He acknowledged that this was a reference to the ravages of addiction. Surprisingly, many of the songs are not completely autobiographical. “Most of my characters are composites of kids I grew up with…Nashville kids with single mothers,” he said.
It was right around the release of JTE’s third album, 2009’s Midnight at the Movies that this particular Nashville son started to make a dent in the public square. The selective use of down-home instruments like the steel guitar, dobro, mandolin, fiddle and hand claps (among others), created scenic backdrops recalling both the speakeasy and the church. The foundation of drums and bass (often upright) and the occasional use of bayou-soaked organ are the solid non-intrusive bottom that allow it all to breathe, while his expressive voice caresses the ripped-from-the-heart lyrics.
In 2009, he won the American Music Award for Emerging Artist of the Year. In 2011, the same organization awarded him Song of the Year honors for the song “Harlem River Blues,” from the album of the same name. With such stark lyrics as “Lord I’m goin’ uptown to the Harlem River to drown,” the song evolves into a gospel pilgrimage that manages to be both triumphant and mortifying. Just prior to this came an initial appearance on Letterman and just afterwards the Carnegie Hall gig. JTE remains humble despite the glossy additions to his resume. When asked what it was like when Letterman strolled over and giddily sang his praises after he finished up his song, JTE said, unassumingly, “It was pretty surreal.”
With 2012’s Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, JTE continues to branch outward and upward. “This is my, oh shit, I really am an adult record… It is the quietest of my records.” Often using a dryer-than-tinder voice that rivals Springsteen’s most parched delivery, he sings of hard-earned wisdom, regret and the bumpy ride towards change. The album is tilted toward the Memphis soul side of things, with muted horns and mournful organ providing a spongy cushion for his voice and guitar. In the song “Movin’ On,” he sings in a near mantra-like fashion, “I’m trying to move on.” Despite the weariness and pleading sentiment in his delivery, it points towards positive change. Over the course of the cd, there isn’t a note of hipster artifice to be found.
Two years ago there was a messy relapse and some even messier behavior, but JTE seems to have righted the ship and planted his feet firmly at the helm. The good things keep piling up. He was asked to both produce rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson’s most recent record, Unfinished Business and to “curate” two evenings of music celebrating the late Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday at Pace University. The request for the latter came from Guthrie’s daughter Nora. His guitar chops have landed him on the cover of guitar magazines and there has been a second Letterman appearance. “The last couple of years have been a steady climb,” he said.
When you talk to JTE, now 30, he often looks straight into your eyes and then leans back and reflects before speaking. He also seems to be staring back at his life and pondering the future. “It has taken me to age 30 to realize I have done some things like my dad,” he said, with perhaps a hint of self-mockery. Like his dad, he has a place in Greenwich Village, but JTE also maintains a home in Nashville for a sense of balance. “The goal is to make it big enough in the US…to be able to take care of my mom, and down the road, put a couple of kids through college,” he said. JTE has not only sprouted new branches on the musical family tree, he appears to be setting down some solid roots that are all his own.
Justin Townes Earle Live
November 11—Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center