Justin Townes Earle: Singer-Songwriter Prodigy Finds His Sea Legs

Justin Townes Earle: Midnight at the MoviesJustin Townes Earle: Midnight at the Movies (Bloodshot, 3/3/09)

Justin Townes Earle: “Mama’s Eyes”

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Justin Townes Earle may be the son of political country-music legend Steve Earle, but he has his mother’s eyes. Born into a life with shoes impossible to fill, Justin Earle had self-destructed by the age of 21, spending his teenage years in a haze of heroin, cocaine, and the shadow of his father’s legacy. After being dragged into rehab after a 14-day cocaine bender that led to respiratory failure, Justin realized that it was time for some introspection and reevaluation.

He channeled his turmoil into song for his 2008 debut album, The Good Life, a sprawling collection of all things Americana, incorporating Dust Bowl folk, pre-War blues, and good ol’ rock and roll into a fresh and vital style that was all his own. On his 2009 album, Midnight at the Movies, Earle avoids the sophomore slump and revels in the blues and country traditions that are close to his heart, while never trying to reinvent the wheel.

What stands out is the clear-eyed innocence of his lyrics. Bereft of the rabble-rousing politics of his father, Justin’s music captures the feel-good spirit of the open road and the simple joys of being alive. During his touring promotion for Midnight at the Movies, I caught up with the 26-year-old, clean and sober Nashville native from a casino hotel in the frozen wasteland of Green Bay, Wisconsin.

“Hey, man, it’s like three degrees here,” Justin says from his hotel room. “It’s fucking freezing!” His voice is a slow drawl, a little dusty with a heavy Southern inflection. I ask how he is doing, and immediately he picks up on the real question I am asking, the curse of small talk for any reformed drug user. “I kind of take it a day at a time,” he says. “Right now I’m 26, I’m staying in a pretty nice hotel room with my girlfriend, and I play music for a living. Just to step away and look at that…I’m pretty fucking happy. I’m not making an amazing living or anything, but I’m getting by. I don’t do anything but play music and drive. I’m pretty god-damned happy with where I stand right now.”

It has taken a long time to arrive at a good place, and Midnight at the Movies is a reflection of Justin coming to terms with bad habits and bad relationships.

“I was in a much worse head space when I wrote this one,” he says. “I was dealing with a lot of relationship and household problems. I was pretty worn out, and I had been working a lot. My songs are extremely personal, but sometimes to keep from my songs becoming a droning, whiny diatribe, I have to use characters to get my emotions across. I use composite characters out of little bits of myself and my friends. If you write really personal songs, they can be really bad, really easily, but I still feel that it’s very important to be personal. Nobody wants to hear your deep, dark secrets, and you have to know how to put them across to where it seems like entertainment.”
 

“People can label me whatever they want, but I’m just a songwriter. I think that alt-country these days is a wide, sweeping term, just like Americana. I don’t know what the fuck Americana means, and alt-country means even less.”

When asked if he felt the nerves of the sophomore release, Justin laughs. “I felt it for sure,” he says, “but I think I’ve been lucky because I didn’t necessarily grow up around the music business; I grew up with my mother. But growing up in Nashville, I saw the trials and tribulations of all the artists and singer/songwriters there and the stuff they went through. What I learned from all that was to try not to have any expectations for my records, because you just never know which way the tide is going to turn. You could make the worst record of your life, it suddenly shoots to the Top 40, and your best record only sells two copies.

“I write songs to be records. I don’t write random songs and pile them all together. I’m a cocktail-napkin writer. I write on scraps of paper, and then I sit down and put it all together. I used to write about three songs a week for years, but that was when I was all fucked up and I probably only kept about ten songs a year. So now I’ve learned to slow down and write twelve songs a year, and that’s a good year.”

From an early age, Justin began living the rock-star life. Growing up with his mother in a seedy part of Nashville, he rarely saw his father. During the mid-1980s and early ’90s, Steve Earle experienced his well-publicized downfall into heroin and addiction, eventually landing in jail for 60 days in 1993.

In his early teens, Justin began knocking around with various Nashville musicians, eventually forming the rock outfit The Distributors and fronting the acoustic, bluegrass-influenced group The Swindlers. After developing a serious appetite for alcohol and drugs, Justin began touring with his dad’s band, The Dukes, and even recorded one of his own tunes, “The Time You Waste,” for his father’s 2003 release, Just An American Boy. After a short stint with The Dukes, Justin was fired when his rampant drug use became life-threatening. Never one to place the blame on anyone for his mistakes, Justin believes that addiction is genetic, and that he was a junkie before he even started using.

“I would never say that I wasn’t trying to emulate the lives of my idols,” Justin says. “My namesake, Townes Van Zandt, lived a really hard life but wrote great songs. I was a young, dumb, impressionable songwriter when I started taking drugs. I was 15 and hanging out with songwriters who were double and triple my age, and they had gone through and were still going through all that crap, so I learned a lot of bad habits really fast and managed to keep up with them.”

As for musical lessons learned from his dad, Justin explains that their styles are very different. “My dad laid out the basic format for writing a song, but we’re definitely very different writers,” he says. “We write in the same box, which is kind of based on writing around a thesis, which has a beginning, middle, and end. I’m always going to operate within the parameters of the music that I love. The old country and southern stuff, and any music from below the Mason-Dixon Line.”

For a genre that brings to mind names like Ryan Adams and Jeff Tweedy, Justin’s brand of roots rock stays true to the origins, with no room for noodling or sonic experimentation.

“People can label me whatever they want, but I’m just a songwriter,” he says. “I think that alt-country these days is a wide, sweeping term, just like Americana. I don’t know what the fuck Americana means, and alt-country means even less. I think that if you get tagged alt-country these days, your record automatically stalls. Sometimes I worry about where the state of music is going. I just try and look at this beautiful, old music and give my own take on it. Every once in a while, I’ll hear an artist reinterpreting the classic country music that I grew up with, and it really gives me hope for the future in this terrible fucking business that we operate in.”

For such a young man, Justin Earle is a very old soul. On an album that grapples with the questions that an old man might be asking himself at death’s door, he reaches out to his mother on Midnight at the Movies’ most touching song, “My Mother’s Eyes.” He sings from the heart to the woman who raised him and who is responsible for shaping him into the man, for good or ill, that he has become.

“When I wrote ‘My Mother’s Eyes,’ I was a little unsure about how I was going to format that song to get at that feeling,” Justin says. “The chorus talks about a guy who thinks he’s like his father, but he’s got his mother’s eyes. I do get along fine with my father. I love my father, but I didn’t grow up with Steve Earle. I really didn’t know him until I was in my teens. My mother broke her ass raising me, and all anyone brings up in interviews is ‘What’s it like growing up with Steve Earle?’ She deserves the credit. I learned a lot about songwriting from my dad, but my mom shaped me as a person, and that’s important for everyone to know. Steve Earle is Steve Earle, but he did not invent the wheel. He deserves what credit he gets. But my mom is the real hero of my story.”