Justin Townes Earle – He’s a good Guy
It’s a question that no doubt has been following him ever since his first gig at age 15, so there’s no sense dancing around it: In the roots music world, what are the advantages and disadvantages of being Stacey Earle’s nephew?
Proving he’s a kind-hearted soul, Justin Townes Earle chuckles at this attempt at ice-breaking before responding, “With Stacey come all advantages because people love Stacey. People say that I remind them a lot of Stacey when I perform.”
Folks had many opportunities to see him onstage in 2007, a year that found Justin doing 175 shows either solo or with longtime cohort Cory Younts on mandolin and banjo. It’s a singer-songwriter setup, but the sound, as captured on the live EP Yuma, is more often than not vintage country. “It’s always been the one kind of music that evoked raw emotion out of me,” Justin admits. “I’ve said this several times, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve cried when I wasn’t listening to George Jones playing.”
A good chunk of The Good Life — his Bloodshot debut and, unlike Yuma, a full-band record — echoes that era when Jones was at his tear-jerkingest in both style and approach. The latter is a reflection of his fascination with the ’50s and ’60s output from the likes of Jones and Ray Price, and how those performances were caught live with the players set up around a couple microphones. Earle didn’t go quite that far, but The Good Life — recorded, mixed, and mastered on Music Row in seven days — was made with minimal fuss as overseen by co-producer R.S. Field.
Field crashed the whirlwind session at the last second after Earle sent him a Greyhound bus ticket. “He was more pleased with that than I thought he was gonna be,” recalls Earle. “He said he couldn’t think of any other way to start a country record than coming into Nashville on a Greyhound bus at midnight.”
And make no mistake, The Good Life is primarily a classic-country album. Two notable exceptions are the country-soul beauty “Faraway In Another Town” (rescued from an aborted rock record Justin was making with Brad Jones) and “Who Am I To Say”, which splits the difference between Jackson Browne and Earle’s dad — a.k.a. Aunt Stacey’s brother Steve. Elsewhere, songs such as the title track and “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome” represent Earle in full “old-timey” mode, as he calls it, with fiddle intros, tumbling piano, passing-train pedal steel, and Justin’s ’50s-jukebox voice. As characterized by the Roger Miller-worthy sentiment “Seems like either way I lose/Between lonesome and you,” The Good Life is a record of hard loving and hard leavings.
As for hard living, Justin seems to have left that behind. A few years back, he was working on a deal with Lost Highway — a song from that period cut with the elder Earle and Ray Kennedy, the witty and direct “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving”, found its way onto The Good Life — but drug addiction and alcoholism derailed that effort.
Such were the self-imposed pressures on a youngster branded both Townes and Earle. “I thought I needed to live up to my names in many ways,” he says. “I thought I needed to write better songs than I did, play better than I did, and I thought I needed to drink and use a lot more drugs than I needed to.”
These days, Earle, 26 years old and three-plus years sober, has a different outlook. “There are a lot of us out there, the ‘sons and daughters of.’ I could never live up to a Steve Earle or a Townes Van Zandt, and if I tried to, I’d live an extremely miserable life. All I’m attempting to do is make records that make me feel good.”