There it was, in huge, black, block letters, stretched across the bright-light billing that once advertised porn to the passersby on Colfax Avenue:
JUSTIN TOWNES EARL
He should have at least been given that extra "E" for effort. But that's what sometimes happens when you decide to hold onto the names of two roots music masters from your birth certificate, one as seemingly important and identifiable as the other.
Earle could have done what fellow singer-songwriter Joe Pug did – chop off more than half the letters. Pugliese is the surname of the heralded Chicago transplant, on tour with Earle through March 9 before both eventually find themselves on that never-ending roster at South By Southwest in Austin.
But losing either Townes or Earle wasn't an option for the excitable boy from Nashville, whose famous folk-hero father (Steve Earle) and major influence (whom he calls "the late, great Townes Van Zandt") follow Justin on every marquee across the country.
Over a span of three hours on February 19, the 28-year-old Earle and the 25-year-old Pug were shining examples of how far-reaching revisionist folk can be. Earle rounded all the bases – and gave quite a music appreciation class – before scoring in front of a crowd that turned rowdy during his 90-minute exploration of hillbilly mamas, old-fashioned honky-tonks and an older but wiser redhead from Georgia who "taught me many things I need to know" and was "meaner than a rattlesnake."
First, though, Pug took the down-to-earth approach during an hourlong set of earnest songs, six of which were off his first full-length album, Messenger (Lightning Rod Records), released February 16. The ex-carpenter already has a built-in following after numerous Colorado stops in 2009, including the Folks Festival in Lyons and Denver's Swallow Hill.
His heavy-hitting lyrics drive the numbers that have drawn comparisons to Bob Dylan and John Prine, among others. They were well-received by a respectful audience that clearly had other things in mind by the time the headliner hit the stage.
Pug (below), wearing a Johnny Cash basic black shirt with silver horseshoes, relied on his booming baritone, acoustic guitar, blazing harmonica and moving poetry. Performances of "Nation of Heat" (the title cut from his highly praised, word-of-mouth EP venture), "Hymn 35" – "I am the day, I am the dawn, I am the darkness coming on" – and "Unsophisticated Heart" set the mood. He then elicited the help of bearded buddy Andrew Harrison (a Madison, Wisconsin resident who was "born and raised in Denver, Colorado," Pug revealed) on electric guitar, pedal steel and backing vocals.
Harrison amped up the middle of the 12-song set, with tame taunts from Pug – "Y'all think he can do a little fuckin' better than that" – after one impressive solo run that took the crowd to "yee-haw" and "woo-hoo" heights.
"So who here in this crowd is ready for a dark, brooding, introspective folk song?" Pug asked, delighted to get the proper response for the melancholy "Not So Sure," with Harrison accompanying on a whining pedal steel. He won a few more over to the dark side.
Pug's pleasant manner and gentle touch gave way to the frantic antics of Justin Townes Earle, whose 6-foot-5 frame is as long as his name. Earle, slicked-back hair and Buddy Holly-style horn-rimmed glasses, brings a fast-talking carnival barker's showmanship and used car salesman guile to the stage, along with trusty fiddler Josh Hedley and sexy, sassy, slap-happy Bryn Davies on upright bass.
Yet, the hard-working Earle doesn't appear to be trying to fool anyone. While his between-songs banter can be as entertaining as many of his rollicking numbers, he takes his job seriously, working up a sweat in a natty suit with suspenders.
A set with more than 20 songs, with at least nine from his 2009 sophomore release Midnight at the Movies (Bloodshot Records) that helped him win Emerging Artist of the Year at the Americana Awards, can make even the most cynical hipster start searching through granddaddy's record collection. Earle is an equal-opportunity singer-songwriter, tackling blues, folk, swing, country and rock 'n' roll. He also performed several new songs – even taking his "first swipe at gospel music" – for an album he'll begin recording in May.
His soliloquies, punctuated with folksy phrases and corn-pone charm, aren't all original. Earle's introduction to the ballad, "Someday I'll Be Forgiven For This," borrows a line his Big Daddy has used often: "So this goes out to what's-her-face wherever she is tonight." No matter the singer, the song or the venue, it works every time.
This Earle stays away from the political diatribes of his left-leaning father, though. While there are references to his dad on the tender "Mama's Eyes" – "I am my father's son / We don't see eye to eye / And I'll be the first to admit / I've never tried" – the focus is clearly on his mama. The third wife of Steve Earle, Carol-Ann Earle has what Justin calls hillbilly intuition and an ability to "beat your ass," but is just "waiting for her boy to come home."
When not poking fun at himself ("I got myself in a lot of trouble in my day") or past (and present) acquaintances (one new song's working title is "Woman, You've Been Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed Too Long"), Earle uses his colorful sermons to spread the word of musicians from all genres, from Buck Owens ("Close Up the Honky Tonks") to The Carter Family ("Gold Watch and Chain") to Lightnin' Hopkins.
"Do you know who Mance Lipscomb is?" was his challenge to the crowd without a clue. Feigning anger and disbelief that no one had heard of the blues guitarist from Navasota, Texas who died in 1976, before many of them were born, Earle yelped, "Well, sheeeeeet! I'll show you."
And he did, nimbly finger-picking his way through Lipscomb's "So Different Blues," before taking on Hopkins' "Bad Gasoline" with a new guitar he was breaking in just for this occasion.
The testimonies continued, ladies and gentlemen, as Earle so often addressed the rabble-rousers that he eventually came to embrace. In personal shout-outs, Earle dedicated songs to his late grandfather, Jack Dublin Earle, Woody Guthrie, Gregory Corso, Chris Feinstein (the bassist for Ryan Adams and the Cardinals who died in December at age 42), that "good girl from Georgia" and the New York City train conductor who "was cussing in the wildest Louisiana accent I ever heard in my young life."
His reverence for his middle namesake, the "late, great Townes Van Zandt," was evident only briefly during the show, when he quoted the man recognized as one of Texas' greatest songwriters – "It's all for the sake of the song."
Earlier in the night, though, while the suit and the happy-go-lucky persona were still in storage, a gracious and humble Earle made his way to the first elevated level beyond the dance floor, walking by many of the early arrivals, most of whom were unaware of his presence.
He greeted a heart surgeon from Texas who first became a fan of Van Zandt's music in Houston, then soaked up the sounds and stories while meeting performers such as Ray Wylie Hubbard and Slaid Cleaves in a bar called the Mucky Duck.
That fan, Damon Kennedy, recently moved to Denver, and presented Earle with a framed impression/rubbing from Townes Van Zandt's gravestone (right), which is located in a family plot at Dido Cemetery, north of Fort Worth. Kennedy also gave a similar rubbing to another of Van Zandt's disciples, Guy Clark, who was in Denver two days earlier for a performance at the L2 Arts and Culture Center, less than a mile west of the Bluebird.
"That's very sweet of you to bring this to me," Earle told Kennedy, before autographing the fan's personal copy that already included Clark's signature. Kennedy hopes to add more signatures from Van Zandt friends, followers and admirers, including Steve Earle (who won a Grammy in January for his Townes tribute album), Rex "Wrecks" Bell, Kris Kristofferson and Hubbard.
After posing for pictures taken with a disposable camera, Kennedy and Earle shook hands, both appreciating the legacy and understanding the significance of the moment. It was a sign of the times.
With musical past, present and future all rolled into four syllables, Justin Townes Earle is making a name for himself - with or without that last "E."
• For a limited time, go to joepugmusic.com to receive a download of his In the Meantime EP.
• For a limited time, go to justintownesearle.com to download his "Midnight at the Movies" live performance for PBS.
• See more Bluebird Theater concert photos at flickr.com.
See Joe Pug and Andrew Harrison performing "Nobody's Man" with Pug's full band in the first installment of "Soundcheck Sessions" on February 2, 2010: