You could have heard a pin drop most of the night at the Mother Church of Country Music as Justin Townes Earle turned in a mesmerizing, enrapturing performance. I’ve seen Justin enough in concert now–most recently at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo in May, last time at the Ryman in November of 2014–that, while I still marvel at, I no longer spend the entire night mystified by his percussive Mance Lipscomb-influenced, heavily mic’d guitar. Instead I spent most of this night wrapped up in his glorious singing, better with each passing year.
One of Earle’s heros is Billie Holiday and he delivered a short rap before singing his Lady Day tribute “White Gardenias” about the opioid crisis, a subject matter about which he acquired some expertise at a young age. Earle had cancelled, for reasons unknown, a series of concert dates in Australia recently in July, but he hit the stage clean-shaven, energetic, dapper, and in good cheer, opening with “Champagne Corolla” and “Maybe a Moment” from his most recent album Kids in the Street (New West, 2017). For his continued health and nights of music such as this, man, God bless Suboxone!
He followed with “One More Night in Brooklyn” from his award-winning third album Harlem River Blues (Bloodshot Records, 2010) and “Nothing’s Going to Change the Way You Feel About Me Now” the title-cut of his fourth album (Bloodshot, 2012) before introducing a new song, a revved-up satire, “Flint City Shake It.” Earle wrote this not after reading of Flint’s recent water crisis, but after watching Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me,” the 1989 film documenting the trials and tribulations of Moore’s hometown of Flint after GM’s Roger Smith closed local plants and GM employment plummeted in Flint from 80,000 to 50,000 in a decade. (Side note: GM employment today in Flint barely crests 5,000). Earle has largely shunned political songs in his career–even made pointed jabs at singer-songwriters, such as his father, who do and are given to advocacy from the stage–so this could mark a fascinating shift in Earle the Younger’s career. He promised that his new songs “attack no individuals, only corporations, like GM and Firestone.” I was serving a two-year tour of duty 1988-1990 teaching at the University of Akron when I first watched “Roger and Me” and I can only say that Firestone, hope he nicks Goodyear too, deserves whatever Earle has in store for them.
Earle continued with “What’s She Crying For?” from the most recent album and three regulars from his set list: “Christchurch Woman,” “They Killed John Henry,” a tribute to his late grandfather, and “My Mama’s Eyes.” Justin’s mother was in the audience when he performed the song at his Ryman debut in 2014 while his father was not; this time around his mother was not while Earle père was backstage with Justin’s young half-brother John Henry Earle in tow. (Much has been written of Justin’s justifiable Daddy issues–famously grist for his songwriting mill–but in December 2016 Justin was the first of artists, followed by Jackson Browne, to sign on to play at the first of Steve’s annual NYC concerts benefiting the school for children with autism which John Henry attends.)
One thing I like most about JT Earle is his keen sense of history: he almost always plays a Mance Lipscomb or Lightning Hopkins song or two and has often been interviewed on the relationship between blues and gospel and also blues and country. Last Sunday, center stage at the Ryman, he delivered a beautiful version of the Carter Family’s oft-covered 1933 classic “Gold Watch and Chain.” I first learned the song from an Emmylou Harris album in 1980. This predates Justin by a couple years: he might well have learned the song from a Carter Family compilation. He followed this up with Malcolm Holcomb’s haunting, cryptic “Who Carried You,” and he has been a champion of the songs of this great, older, little-known-outside-Nashville-songwriting-circles artist.
“Ain’t Waiting,” “Rogers Park” (as in Chicago, and I might mention that Justin’s Hatch Show Print celebrated his love of baseball and there were a couple of folks wearing Cubs jerseys in attendance), “Can’t Hardly Wait” (a song by the Replacements which Justin has made his own), “One Pine Hill,” “White Gardenias,” “Hard Livin” and the Lightning Hopkins classic “My Starter Won’t Start (Bad Gasoline),” as well as several others, were in the night’s stretch run. Missing were one of JT’s classics “Memphis in the Rain,” any Townes Van Zandt cover (he performed “Rex’s Blues” in 2014), and my personal favorite, though there is only so much sadness to be absorbed at one sitting, “Am I That Lonely Tonight?” In introducing “Hard Livin'” Justin said his father told him he would not be able to sing the song when he was 35. “Screw your Dad,” shouted a woman from the audience. “He’s right over there,” Justin replied, rather proudly, pointing off stage, and then proceeding with a killer version of the song, demonstrating a vocal range and elasticity which eluded the father even in his younger days.
If my mem’ry serves me well–usually a slim chance–Earle closed his set with “Short Hair Woman,” a tribute to his wife Jenn and with whom he has a one-year-old daughter Etta St. James Earle. JT often proclaims encores as “bullshit,” announces his final song, plays it, and is gone with a wave. Tonight, in good cheer, in deference to place, in appreciation of a sparse and loyalist audience (yes, not one single song request was blurted out, not one: this truly must be a record), Justin returned for “Fishing Blues,” a traditional song famously recorded in Chicago on Vocalion by Henry Thomas aka “Ragtime Texas” (1874–1930) in 1928, and a gorgeous rendition of his own considerably less optimistic song “Harlem River Blues,” recorded in 2010.