Justin Townes Earle: “You Have to Keep Learning”
The adage “like father like son” suggests that any male offspring who follows in his father’s footsteps is simply living out an old cliché. Whether that’s always accurate can be fuel for debate, but singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle’s personal history indicates it would be easy to assume that saying applies to him. Indeed, despite the fact that he was estranged from his famous dad – radical alt-country artist Steve Earle – early on, few were surprised when Justin entered the family business. He was like the elder Earle in many ways, not least of which was his propensity for excess in drugs and drink. The effects of addiction, an estranged father, and the need to establish himself on his own merits were obstacles that he needed to overcome in order to carve out a career that would supersede those pitfalls and elevate him toward his present star status.
“I was, as far as I know, just being who I am,” Earle conceded when asked to comment on his somewhat notorious past. “You can’t bullshit a bullshitter. However I do think that perhaps I bear a little power over certain people in the business, based on my former violent reputation. I’ve found that especially evident when I’ve walked into a boardroom. With a past like mine, you tend to be judged rather quickly. It’s certainly a lot different from coming in with a business degree from Vanderbilt.”
Nowadays, at age 32, happily married and experiencing the joys of fatherhood for the first time, Earle seems determined to put his rowdy reputation behind him. No longer needing to beg for attention, he’s built a career that’s brought him critical acclaim and a well-deserved reputation for consistent artistic integrity. It’s brought other changes as well. After spending the better part of his recording career associated with Chicago’s insurgent Bloodshot Records label, he recently inked a contract with Vagrant, a record company mostly known for its decidedly punk-leaning presence. While it might be considered a leap of faith for all concerned, Earle expressed delight with what he perceives as common ground between the label’s rebellious reputation and his own freewheeling intents. “I’ve liked the work they’ve done in the past,” he said. “They’ve managed to stay relevant for a very long period of time. It’s similar to what Bloodshot has done. I have a lot of respect for labels that stick to their guns and do things their own way while still managing to succeed at it.”
Likewise, it may be a sign of some newfound diplomacy on his part that he can still express admiration for his former record label.“The people at Bloodshot were amazing,” Earle said. “Unlike most labels, they paid on time. They were sweet people and it was a great experience working with them.” So why the change? “Anybody that understands art and understands business knows that unless you want to stay where you are, you’ve got to move on. I just thought that, after making four records for Bloodshot — in addition to my first EP, which they re-released as well — it was just time for me to move on. That doesn’t mean I won’t make another record for Bloodshot at some point. But, given the opportunity to move on and learn things from a different set of people, I considered it the right move to make. You have to keep learning, because this business changes like the wind.”
Happily, both Earle and his new label seem satisfied. “It’s an amazing honor to have Justin Townes Earle on the Vagrant roster,” label president Jon Cohen wrote in an emailed communique. “We’ve been admirers of his work for years, and it’s a huge coup to have Justin make the decision to join our stable of songwriters.”
Wasted on the Way
Evolution seems to be at the top of Earle’s agenda these days. That’s most evident in the renewed image he purveys. In the past, he’s presented a somewhat intimidating presence — a tattooed troublemaker who had little patience for niceties or, even more so, those who were determined to give him a hard time. It was a perception that seemed to trip him up time and again, especially when his habits fueled speculation he was on a self-destructive path. Even early on, when he was still a budding musician learning the ropes via an apprenticeship in his father’s touring group, he was prone to problematic behavior. Unable to focus on the job at hand, he was booted out of the band when his drug dependence got the best of him.
Old habits were hard to break. As recently as 2010, Earle landed in trouble after a fracas with an Indianapolis club owner. The result was a night in jail and a month in an alcohol rehabilitation center, in one of many attempts to sober up.
He is quick to concede that at times he’s been his own worst enemy. So much so that he started out stumbling, even before he could gain his first foothold. “It’s a little-known thing about my career that Lost Highway Records wanted to sign me when I was 18 or 19 years old,” he said. “I went in and laid down a few tracks and everything was looking good. And then I ran into the guy who wanted to sign me at a show and I was completely wasted out of my mind. I likely would have been signed right away, but I was just out of my mind.”
Even so, Earle remains unapologetic. “I’m happy now that I didn’t get to make a record back then, because I guarantee you I would not be happy with that record today. To make up for it, I ended up putting myself through the wringer. I was still doing up to 200 dates a year. Because, when you’re just starting out, the only way to express that desire to perform is to go out and play as many gigs as you can. Hopefully, you get enough people interested in you, people who like what they hear.”
His Father’s Son
Apart from his struggles with drugs and dependency, Earle spent a long time trying to get out from under his father’s shadow. It’s a difficulty common to most children of famous parents — just ask Julian Lennon, Rufus Wainwright, or Ben Taylor. But, considering his dad’s outsized personality, the challenge was especially daunting. Even after five albums that have been highly praised by the critics, and that won Justin his own legion of followers along the way, he has never been content to carry the distinction of simply being Steve Earle’s son. That’s been obvious throughout his career, ever since he first ventured out in 2007 with a six-song EP called Yuma.
Bloodshot released his full-length debut, The Good Life, in 2008. Unlike the renegade regimen that distinguished other famous alt-country offspring – Shooter Jennings, Bobby Bare Jr., and Hank III among them – the album found Earle opting for a more traditional route, one that encompassed down-home, tears-in-your-beer ballads rather than the raised middle finger of arrogance and defiance. Drawing a distinction from the political posturing that preoccupied his dad at that time, Justin sang songs gleaned from regret and remorse, making “The Good Life,” “Lonesome and You,” and “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome” sound like long-lost outtakes from the Hank Williams songbook. Likewise, the jaunty honky-tonk of “Hard Livin’” and “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” could have made Bob Wills beam with pride, given the barrelhouse piano, fiddle, and pedal steel guitar that lent it an air of authenticity. The tattered Civil War narrative “Lone Pine Hill” and the feisty road diary “South Georgia Sugar Babe” added further credence to Earle’s rustic roots, as did his desire to pay homage to the man who inspired his middle name — the late, great singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt.
Midnight at the Movies came a year later, starting him on a roll of critical acclaim that’s yet to subside. With Harlem River Blues, that trickle of praise became a veritable flood of kudos and compliments. It found him putting the brakes on anger and attitude, as he opted instead for a more traditional stance. Unabashedly emotional, its retro-fitted songs came across like old-school standards, each drawing on archetypical Americana styles, ranging from bluegrass and classic country to blues, folk, and gospel, all etched with bold strokes. It was a sound and style that recalled Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and yes, the elder Earle as well. Its follow-up, 2012’s Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel about Me Now, reinforced that notion even further and served to elevate him to a revered status that had nothing to do with the fact that he was Steve Earle’s son.
In fact, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel about Me Now helped put him on the same artistic footing as his father, at least as far as the critics were concerned. Yet, given the tangled histories of both men, there was a certain amount of animosity that had to be overcome before the two could communicate with some degree of civility. Justin now insists that they have improved their relationship to the point where they speak with one another on a regular basis.
“Oh yeah. We talk,” the younger Earle said. “I’ve talked to him a couple of times in the last couple of days. Our relationship is fine, but I think it will always have its edge. We have a strange past and we’re both in a business that has a certain amount of ego, a certain amount of ‘I know that I can do this.’ It’s inevitable that will lead to a certain amount of personality clash. People who make art have very specific ideas of what art is. We do congratulate each other on new records and we do talk business a lot. Stuff like that. He’s a bit old-school in terms of the way he developed in this business, whereas I came into it quickly, like almost overnight.”
Still, ask the elder Earle about their relationship and he offers a somewhat different perspective. “I hear from him less frequently than I do (son) Ian,” he told The New York Times earlier this year. “I run into him at festivals that we’re both playing. The last time I saw him was at Christmas, and that was the first time I had all three boys together in one room. But he’s got his own stuff to do. He’s in the process of getting a new record deal since his deal with Bloodshot ended. So the short answer is, I haven’t seen him very much.”
Regardless, the supposed alienation between father and son makes good fodder for gossip. Add to that the fact that Justin’s insurgent attitude was generally front and center, and it’s little wonder that the press tended to compare him to his dad early on. While those pronunciations weren’t lost on him, Justin also insists that he’s never paid a lot of attention to what anyone’s said about him.
“This isn’t a slight against my father,” he said, “but if I had come out as Steve Earle’s son, it would have been quite different, just like if I came out as Carol-Ann Earle’s boy. My father has this thing that he does and I have this thing I do, which is not necessarily a huge departure, but a departure from my father regardless. It was like when I was a kid, I was not afraid to fight. Why would I be afraid of words and what people think of what I do? So I don’t ever read the fucking press. If you don’t read your own press you’ll be fine, because then you won’t know what people say about you. My wife or my manager will tell me about something that’s particularly funny. Actually, I’ll retweet the bad shit people say about me because it’s hilarious. People have so much time on their hands.”
A Changed Man
As evidence of his personal evolution, on the day of his interview with No Depression, Earle was on a leisurely outing near his Nashville home as we spoke, spending some time by the river with his dog — or, more precisely, chasing his dog. Consequently, his only outbursts during our conversation were the result of having to implore his canine companion to not venture into the water too far. “He was a service animal and he’s very protective,” Earle explained. “He was my wife’s dog before I ever came around, but for some reason, he seems to like me.” That, we agreed, is a good thing. “If the woman’s dog doesn’t like you,” he added, “then the relationship is not going to happen.”
While Earle’s recent shift into the realm of domestic tranquillity may strike some as suspect, his ability to own up to his imperfect past indicates that he has indeed turned a corner, at least as far as his sentiments are concerned. “I soaked up all that stuff,” he admitted when asked to retrace his history of substance abuse. “Nobody thought I would live. That was the main thing. Everybody that was around me at the time told me it was just sad to watch. They just didn’t believe I’d live through it. At the same time, my art was never in question with anybody. People always said I was writing good songs. Likewise, alcohol and drugs never really affected my playing. People that really knew me could tell, but it never got to a point where I’d fuck up a show. So it was really hard to convince me I had a problem for a long time. I just figured I deserved to be fucked up. And I was never bashful about it either. People would ask me if I was smoking crack, and I’d say, ‘yeah.’ I was never one to hide what I was doing, and yet I don’t know why I was like that.”
Given his candidness and casual admissions, especially when it comes to describing the ways he coped with his past indiscretions, one might start to wonder what made him turn his back on that habitual behavior and bother to quit at all.
“I had a big slip-up when I was about 28,” he admitted. “It was during the Harlem River Blues tour. Before that, I had been clean for almost a decade. So I got cleaned up again but that only lasted about a year. I’m just not capable of being anywhere near a good person when I’m on dope. I got tired of living up to everybody’s expectations. And I also figured nobody’s mother should watch their kid die. Plus, I did such severe damage to my body, I figured it wouldn’t be a quick death either. It would be long and drawn out. I wanted something better in my life. I wanted to have kids, and kids that don’t have to go into counseling. I strive to be a better artist every time I make a record, but I also strive to be a better person day by day, which I’m still capable of being, I believe.”
As for the addiction, “it doesn’t all go away,” Earle admitted. “I had a moment when I was tempted to slip a week or so ago — but I also don’t have to beat myself up over it. People are dealt their lot in life, and you have to deal with it as best you can, even if there’s a bounce now and then.”
Earle credits wife Jenn Marie with helping to effect the change. The two were married last October. “It was kind of an immediate thing,” he told the Boston Globe at the time of their nuptials. “We met four months before, and then we spent one week together in Texas and two weeks together in Salt Lake City. We just decided to do it because our families tend to complicate our lives, and we thought this is our day and it has nothing to do with anybody else, and we shouldn’t have to run around on our wedding day and take care of people, which is exactly what would have happened. I believe it’s not about the other people. I think a lot of women want weddings … but it gets completely out of control. People are spending ridiculous amounts of money on weddings. Go buy a house. Take a vacation.”
While that may sound somewhat dismissive, it’s apparent that domesticity has had a calming effect on the young newlywed. “Marriage changed a lot of things for me,” he said. “I was very glad that I hadn’t married any of those other terrible women that I’d been with in the past. When you get married, there’s this overwhelming feeling that there’s no way this is wrong. Few people experience that, and so I’m lucky to find an amazing woman. So it definitely gave me some restraint. I can breathe a little bit now. And of course, I’ve taught her to be more aggressive.”
“Aggressive” may be the operative word, especially as applied to the Earle household. Considering his past reputation and any individual’s inherent difficulty in living with a musician who spends the majority of his or her time on the road, Earle is quick to acknowledge that his wife — who once owned a yoga studio in Salt Lake City — may find it necessary to shore up her strength in order to adapt her new lifestyle. “It takes a lot to be involved with this kind of life,” Earle admitted. “But even so, I think it’s absolutely untrue that you can’t be a musician and be a good husband. If Ozzy Osbourne can be married as long as he has, then it should be possible for me or anyone else to do it.”
A Banter with the Blues
These positive changes seem to have influenced the creation of what may well be Earle’s most agreeable effort yet. His new outing is titled Single Mothers, an album which bears a decidedly domestic title. “I’m glad to finally get it done,” he said. “For the first time, I found it a long, frustrating process. Not in the studio. The studio was great. But rather in the business end of it. It was almost more than I could take without pistol-whipping somebody.”
His exasperation stems from a would-be relationship he tried to forge with Communion, a label co-owned by Mumford & Sons keyboard player Ben Lovett. Earle initially approached the company with the intention of allowing them to release his new album after his contract with Bloodshot had been completed. The talks didn’t last long. Last December, he tweeted that he was thoroughly exasperated with the company when they demanded that he deliver 30 new songs so they could whittle the output down for a single album.
Earle stuck with social media to voice his complaints. “I have now learned that you can never trust a bunch of babies that ain’t worked a day in their lives,” he tweeted.
May Shane McGowan kick their asses.
The only thing I hate about business is that it’s frowned upon to pistol-whip the competition.
Tweets are gonna be angry for awhile.
Just found out I won’t be making a record for a while due to a bunch of pussies in an office.
Never working with another record label.
He followed that blast with an equally bitter barrage of tweets a few days later:
So I am being told that I agreed to write 30 songs and let the label ‘help’ make the record.
That (doesn’t) even sound like me!
Like I would ever let some little twit fucking comb through my work.
And calling me a liar, well, them is fighting words. Anytime bitch’s!” [sic]
With only tweets to judge from, some fans may have guessed the old, surly Earle was back. Or, at very least, that there was some emotional residue that would impact the new album. Asked about that prospect, Earle demurred. “My songs are very personal, but they’re not necessarily autobiographical. They’re an amalgam of many different people that I’ve known and come across during my entire life. I’ve always been a collector in terms of observations and I have a bad habit of listening in to other people’s conversations. I might be that guy that you catch staring at you from across the street,” he laughed, “studying your facial expressions and more.”
Another question Single Mothers might raise for fans is whether, as the poet William Wordsworth famously wrote, the “child is father to the man.” Indeed, if that’s the case, Justin could offer a lesson in repentance for his old man. After all, now that he’s no longer the drug-addled rebel he was in his younger years, Justin seems far less inclined to shake up tradition than does his famously cantankerous old man, especially given the stylistic trappings he embraces this time around.
“I love so many different kinds of music,” he explained, “but I couldn’t find any one style that I wanted to make forever. I did have every intention of being a honky-tonk artist, but once I got out into that world, I realized that the fan base wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to make records that me or anyone else could actually sit and listen to. I think the breakthrough came for me when I returned to my early fondness for the blues and the music of Memphis from the early ’50s. I came back to the finger-style blues slowly. It kind of popped up on Midnight at the Movies and became a little more prominent on Harlem River Blues. Then I took a steep departure from that on Nothing’s Gonna Change. I think, when it comes right down to it, if I really think about it, I’ve always been a blues guy. That’s my number one love. And if you really think about it, if it wasn’t for blues, we wouldn’t have jazz, we wouldn’t have rock and roll. We wouldn’t have a lot of things if it wasn’t for the blues.”
Indeed, bluesy melodies and swelling steel guitars buttress many of the tracks on Single Mothers, making it sound somewhat tame compared to most of his earlier efforts. Fortunately, that doesn’t prove to be a letdown. “Worried ’Bout the Weather,” “White Gardenias,” “My Baby Drives,” and “Today and a Lonely Night” rank among the best songs Earle’s ever written, and if the album as a whole comes across sounding like another set of well-worn standards, it ought to be seen as a credit to his confidence. Despite the album’s brevity — it clocks in at less than a half-hour — and somewhat downcast disposition (except for the upbeat closer “Burning Pictures”), Single Mothers easily ranks as one of the most satisfying albums of Earle’s career.
Still, given its unsettling undercurrents and the troubled nature of blues music in general, there may be reason to suspect that perhaps Earle’s new life isn’t as sunny as it seems. “It’s part of the realization that maybe your foothold wasn’t as good as you thought it was,” he said by way of interpretation. “Maybe you haven’t grown into the man you thought you’d be. It’s a combination of things that should have fucked me up and didn’t, and [things that] shouldn’t have fucked me up and did.” He laughed. “Like all my records, it represents a different phase of my life, along with all these composite characters. The last two years have been an extremely stressful time, because I’m not used to going two years between records. It’s not something I’ve done and, as a result, it was a difficult task.”
During those two years, however, he wasn’t completely idle. In 2012 he ventured into production, sitting behind the boards for rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson’s most recent album, Unfinished Business. The album found the venerable dynamo returning to her roots and doing what she had always done best. Whether crooning the rollicking blues of “I’m Tore Down,” the spirited honky-tonk of “Old Weakness,” or a tearstained ballad like “Am I Even a Memory,” it found her as resolute as ever and Earle artfully providing an assist well out of the spotlight.
“I’m not the kind of person to just walk up to someone and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to produce you,’” Earle said. “But I would like to produce more records in the future. I didn’t know if I’d enjoy it when I did the Wanda Jackson record. It’s not that it was Wanda. It was just the process. So while I wasn’t sure I would like it, it turned out that I did. If you can make a record with a 75-year-old woman and send her off smiling — a woman who’s made records for God knows how long — then you can deal with pretty much anything else.”
Asked if he would consider producing again, if the right opportunity come along, Earle hedged his response. By his own admission, nothing really stays in the forefront of his thoughts very long. “It changes constantly,” he says. “It’s definitely another idea, on top of writing a book and starting a clothing line. I’ve got all kinds of ideas.”
A Place to Call Home
In addition to his wealth of creative ideas, it appears that Earle’s restless spirit is still very much intact, considering the shift in his base of operations a few years ago. Harlem River Blues — with evocative offerings like the title track, “One More Night in Brooklyn,” “Working for the MTA,” and “Rogers Park” — served as an aural travelogue detailing Earle’s transition from Nashville to New York. “I lived in Brooklyn for like two months,” he recalled. “But I was never quite fond of it.” Earle also indicated that the move might not be permanent. “I’ll probably be here a couple more years. I’m definitely going to move on. This is not for the long haul for me. I have a lot of bad memories here. It will always be my hometown, but … . The Pacific Northwest is an option. Hawaii might be an option. My wife is an avid surfer and a skier. So we’ll probably end up on the West Coast somewhere, but definitely not Southern California. It’s ungodly expensive and crowded. I don’t want to live anywhere that’s ungodly expensive and where I have to get in the car to get a pack of smokes.”
From his good-old-boy demeanor, one might suspect that Earle’s deepest roots are in the South. And yet the sense that still doesn’t feel settled may suggest that his evolution into the next phase of his life isn’t quite complete. No longer a newcomer but no venerable veteran either, he resides on the youthful side of the show business divide that separates veteran artists from the up-and-comers out to make their mark with equal doses of sass and spirit. It’s either a mark of Vagrant’s enthusiasm or a statement on Earle’s stature that in the label’s press release announcing Earle’s arrival to its roster, the label calls him a “forefather of contemporary Americana.” Not bad for a guy who’s barely progressed into his thirties and who, until most recently, was still frequently referred to as Steve Earle’s kid.
Nevertheless, Justin is pleased that he’s finally getting some measure of respect after nearly a decade of plying his craft and being labeled a bad boy. “It can be strange,” he said. “I’m 32, and nowadays 35- and 40-year-old men have started referring to me as ‘sir.’ Trust me — that’s not necessary. Especially because there are other things that come with it. Nowadays it’s rare for me to be able to go into a Nashville restaurant to have a meal and not get interrupted by someone who wants an autograph. It’s a strange thing and I’m not quite used to it yet. I not only get recognized on the streets of New York City, but also in Salt Lake City. It’s quite bizarre.”
Bizarre perhaps, but inevitably it’s a sign that Earle’s career is still gathering steam and his difficult transition is paying off — he’s establishing credence as an artist who ought to be reckoned with. The prospect finds him readily admitting his satisfaction: “It’s nice to be thought of as something other than a junkie.”
Photos by Joshua Black Wilkins