There's certain amount of expectation built into his very name – Justin Townes Earle's bears the stamp of two legendary songwriters, his father Steve Earle and the late, great Townes Van Zandt. There's both genius and dissolution, wild melancholy and solemn beauty buried in that name. And while he nearly went off the rails (and out of this life) with drugs in his early, chaotic existence, JTE managed to burn through the devils and dedicate himself to making music that does both namesakes proud – and he's not yet thirty-years old.
Having found the better angel of his nature (or at least the clean and sober one), Earle debuted with the much-praised The Good Life and garnered even more accolades with his follow-up, Midnight at the Movies, which features the song “Mama's Eyes” and led to his being named Best New and Emerging Artist in 2009 by the Americana Music Awards.
Earle's new record, Harlem River Blues comes out September 14, and he will play Headliner's Music Hall in Louisville on the the 17th. I spoke to him just as he was kicking off the tour in Portland, OR, and he was definitely rarin' to get out and get rolling with his new music.
“It's a pretty exciting time right now. We've got a lot of things lined up that we haven't had in the past.” As evidence of that, he had just got off the phone with People Magazine when I called.
“I love touring, too. I mean I don't love it as much as I did in the past when I would sleep in the van....and shower at the truck stop, if I even showered, and live off popcorn. I wouldn't go that far anymore.” He laughingly agreed that getting older makes you appreciate the creature comforts a little more.
Listening to Harlem River Blues, it's pretty clear that Earle hasn't hit any slumps musically. The songs range from the gospel-tinged title track to the Jerry Lee-style rocker “Move Over Mama,” which features some of my favorite lyrics on the album: that song just plain tickles me.
Walk in the door and turn on the light
I find you flat on your back with your legs open wide
Move on over, mama, I'm coming home...
“Working for the MTA” channels Woody Guthrie and the old railroad songs, albeit from a modern perspective: “This ain't my daddy's train,” he laments. “I ain't seen the sun in days.” It's a rich mix of folk music strains that Earle delivers -- as it seems -- effortlessly, in his clean and easy-going vocal style. Along with his own guitar picking and Bryn Davies on stand-up bass, guest musicians on the album include Ketch Secor, Jason Isbell, and Calexico's Paul Niehaus on the pedal steel. I asked him if the relaxed feel of the album was true to his experience of actually putting it together.
“You have to be relaxed to make relaxed-sounding music. Slowly over the years I've figured out what I do as a songwriter – not that I've arrived anywhere or I've stopped learning, but I think I know where I am right now as a songwriter. A lot of the guessing is over.”
We talked a little about the current state of roots-based music and how there seems to be a resurgence of artists working with those older folk traditions. Earle mentioned Jenny Lewis, M. Ward, and the Black Keys as artists that he thought belonged in that group. He also marked out Joe Pug for special praise. “He's one of the best songwriters I've ever heard. He's a different kind of songwriter than me – a very literary songwriter.” (Watch out for Joe Pug; he's currently scheduled to play at Skull Alley on Oct. 13.)
Getting away from the music just a little there were two more things I had to ask Earle about, the first being his appearance on HBO's Treme, which his dad is also working on. I asked him if he thought he had picked up the acting bug and might follow in the footsteps of father Steve and fellow musician Dwight Yoakam. “It's definitely an interesting idea. It's not something that I'm chomping at the bit to do, but it's not something that's completely ludicrous.” Casting directors, make note. That led me to the second question, because he already has made his mark as a fashion icon, which is half the battle in Hollywood.
Earle was named one of the 25 Most Stylish Men in the World by GQ magazine in 2010, which featured vampire du jour Robert Pattinson as well as Johnny Depp. I asked him which look clinched his spot on the list (especially since I had last seen him in overalls, looking rather more like Howdy Doody than Steve McQueen.) “I think it was the white suit at Bonnaroo,” he responded without missing a beat. I guess it doesn't hurt to be at fashion's epicenter either, as Earle now lives in Manhattan, and says he can never, ever see himself wanting to leave there. “I think it's one of the most incredible places on earth.”
Clearly, the sky's the limit for Earle right now, as he continues to put out one gem of an album after another and has people falling over themselves to help raise his profile. Not only has he lived up to his famous namesakes, he also seems poised to blaze a path that is singularly his own.
Earle brings his three-piece outfit to Headliners Friday, September 17, along with Jessica Lea Mayfield and The Ladybirds. Tickets are $10 at the door or via Ticketweb.
Get a taste of Earle's style, both musical and sartorial, in the video below from Bonnaroo:
(Photo credit: Joshua Black Wilkins)