Country-Folk Singer-Songwriter Justin Townes Earle Has Died at 38
Justin Townes Earle in 2017 (photo by C. Elliott)
A social media post on Justin Townes Earle’s artist pages Sunday evening stated that the singer-songwriter has passed away at 38 years old.
View this post on Instagram
It is with tremendous sadness that we inform you of the passing of our son, husband, father and friend Justin. So many of you have relied on his music and lyrics over the years and we hope that his music will continue to guide you on your journeys. You will be missed dearly Justin 💔 “I've crossed oceans Fought freezing rain and blowing sand I've crossed lines and roads and wondering rivers Just looking for a place to land” 📷 by @thejoshuablackwilkins
The statement remained brief, concisely informing fans and followers “of the passing of our son, husband, father and friend Justin.” It continued, “So many of you have relied on his music and lyrics over the years and we hope that his music will continue to guide you on your journeys,” and closed with a lyric from “Looking for a Place to Land,” off his 2014 album, Single Mothers.
At the time of writing, representatives from his publicity and record label (New West Records) have not yet responded to requests for further information or comments.
But comments poured in on social media, mourning the enormous loss. Fellow roots musicians like The Head and The Heart and Samantha Crain expressed their grief, as did beloved authors like Stephen King. Tyler Mahan Coe, son of songwriter David Allan Coe and creator/host of esteemed podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones even divulged that Earle had helped come up with the name of the show.
Earle grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, with formidable musical influences — his father, country-rock icon Steve Earle, and his namesake, country-folk singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. Raised primarily by his mother, Carol Ann Hunter Earle, he spent his younger years wandering, skipping school, touring, and experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
These themes, along with his contentious and complicated family relationships, informed each of his eight solo albums and debut EP, culminating with last year’s The Saint of Lost Causes, which appeared on No Depression’s Best of the Year list.
In fact, Earle was a longtime friend to No Depression. As my predecessor, former Editor in Chief Kim Ruehl remembered, “He was game enough to do our 1st/only live artist chat on ND [in 2009] and was easy to get along with the few times our paths crossed.”
To carry his visceral, oftentimes brutally honest, lyrics, Earle blended a range of roots styles — country, bluegrass, folk, and even punk. From the earliest acoustic set of his 2007 debut, Yuma, to the breakthrough concept record of 2010’s Harlem River Blues, the pedal steel-fueled journey of Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, and the twinning Single Mothers and Absent Fathers of 2014 and ’15, respectively, his styles evolved and blended over time. One constant, though, was his inimitable picking technique — he once explained that the sledgehammer tattoos over his right thumb were inspired by Guy Clark’s description of his two-finger style.
Near the end of Side A of his 2009 album, Midnight at the Movies, sits a honky-tonk ballad called “What I Mean to You.” Ostensibly a love song, Earle sings with a gruff, yet desperate swagger, “I need to know right now just what I mean to you.”
Luckily, I was able to tell him what his music did mean to me, just once in my career. After leading an intimate in-studio session with Earle in 2017, I thanked him profusely and bashfully, saying him that his songs probably saved my life a few times. He looked me dead in the eyes and replied, “Me, too.”
Earle is survived by his parents, wife, and daughter.
[Update 11:35 p.m. EST: Bloodshot Records co-founder and co-owner Rob Miller has shared the following statement.]
My emotions are raw right now, please forgive any awkwardness in my expression of them at this time.
It is with a sadness I fear will take some time to settle into the concrete reality of loss, that we learn of the passing of our dear, dear friend Justin Townes Earle.
The hearts of our entire Bloodshot family go out to his immediate family — especially his daughter, his vast and close network of friends, and his fans at this time.
From the first time I saw Justin perform, I wanted to work with him. I could not take my eyes off him as he commanded the stage. He always seemed to be staring — or glaring — at something off in the middle distance — a drive, a goal, a determination. It was exhilarating. When he stayed at my house in the early days — before hotel rooms or tour buses were an option — he’d rummage through my records and we’d end up listening to Meade Lux Lewis albums until entirely too late. Or too early. Time became a bit fluid.
That he entrusted his first few stellar recordings to us is a source of continual pride. To be up close and watch his confidence and his talent grow at that stage of his career was a thrill. That he was able to move between styles so effortlessly never failed to hold my interest and my admiration. I, and so many others, was looking forward to a long career of compelling music, to watching a craftsman ply his trade at a higher and higher level. I am so saddened at the music we are now denied.
Be well, stay safe, and take care of each other.
Here is a selection of photos of Earle performing from No Depression‘s archives.