Dad-to-be Justin Townes Earle looks back at Nashville in new record
by Skip Anderson
Thirty-five years ago, Justin Townes Earle was born to Americana royalty and given the middle name of the man who arguably is the genre’s founding father. Today, the younger Earle continues to follow in the footsteps of his singer/songwriter father, Steve Earle, and his namesake, Townes Van Zandt — a path he’s been on long before he dropped out of high school at the age of 15. Like both, the younger Earle struggled with drugs early in life. Also like both, he’s a gifted songwriter, writing memorable characters into relatable songs that Americana fans love and latter-day country radio loves to overlook.
On May 26, Earle will release Kids in the Street (New West Records), an outward-looking collection of wonderfully eclectic songs that spans genres. In it, Earle masterfully transitions from rolling Memphis blues to straight-up New Orleans jazz, and from toe-tapping Hank Senior country to acoustic-driven Americana. He closes out the record with a stripped-bare cover of Paul Simon title cut from the album Graceland.
“We all think of the songs from that record as very complicated, but most of it is just Mississippi John Hurt,” Earle says. “Then [Simon] took it to African musicians who added on top of it their thing. But that song is about change and it’s about things that are unstoppable forces.”
The theme of change recurs throughout Kids in the Street, Earle’s eighth studio release. It’s the first album the father-to-be didn’t produce himself or co-produce with someone else; he worked with acclaimed indie-rock producer Mike Mogis (Conor Oberst, Bright Eyes, First Aid Kit).
“I think that’s where the outward-looking thing comes out,” Earle says. “I find myself a lot more comfortable in life — I have a wonderful wife, and I don’t have all the same problems. I’m not looking inward all the time constantly. I have to pay attention to what’s going on around me more, because with a wife, I’m responsible for another person’s feelings. And I’m about to be responsible for another person’s life. As a singer/songwriter you tend to inhabit yourself a bit too much. And I do feel like I’m starting to get less in my head as a person and likewise as a writer.”
Kids on the Street is the second album Earle recorded outside of Nashville, a place where he came of age personally and professionally. His parents separated and his mother raised him as his father’s career was taking off. Growing up in what was at the time a lower-middle class neighborhood in South Nashville, his childhood was notably turbulent.
“The first time I saw crack cocaine it was in the parking lot of [a neighborhood drugstore near Vanderbilt University],” Earle says. “I was about 9 years old.”
At the time, the crack was nothing more than an oddity for Earle and his friends, who had ridden there on their bicycles. But that would change.
“I was already off to the races [with drugs] by the time I was 14 years old. By 15, I was getting in too deep,” he says. “By the time I was 16 I was completely off the rails. I was able to survive as a very functional drug addict into my early 20s.”
Despite the drug use, he was able to perform gigs at dive bars around Music City. Soon thereafter, Earle started a weekly residency at the Springwater Supper Club two miles west of downtown when he was 14. Often high on the prescription opioid Dilaudid, Earle incorporated songs he learned listening to his father’s record collection into his astounding seven-hour weekly set.
“I would play Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin’ Hopkins — blues standards — at Springwater,” he says. “That was the goal: I wanted to be an acoustic blues guy.”
Years removed from Nashville and a decade or so removed hard drugs, Earle is looking at what his hometown may have lost. Some of the bars he played in as an up-and-comer have been replaced by trendy hotspots offering craft cocktails and pricey food. Much of his childhood neighborhood in South Nashville — now called 12 South — is hyper-gentrified, with high-end restaurants and boutiques replacing longstanding establishments such as the nearby Fina gas station where a pre-teen Earle used to purchase Marlboro Reds by telling the cashier they were for his grandfather. Closed is the Minor League ballpark where he and his friends would ride their bikes in the parking lot until after the fourth inning when management would let the neighborhood kids in for free.
Earle sings directly about Nashville in two cuts from Kids on the Street — name-checking Murfreesboro Pike and Elm Hill Pike in the rollicking murder ballad “Same Old Stagolee,” and Granny White Pike, Belmont Boulevard and Eighth Avenue in the wistful title cut about gentrification.
Now it’s gone
Blown on a lonely wind of change
And now I think that I miss it most
Cause I never thought that it could change
The source of Justin Townes Earle’s middle name is widely known. But his parents have conflicting origin stories for his first name. Justin defers to his mother’s account that they named him after Justin Hayward, the lead singer of the Moody Blues.
“That is a source of contention right there between the parents,” Earle says. “I’m going to go with my mom’s story since my dad got ‘Townes.’ ‘Justin came’ from Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues.”
The name of his first child, due in late July, will also have a musical origin: Etta St. James Earle