When I first laid eyes on Justin Townes Earle at the Big Surprise Tour in Louisville this summer, I was perplexed.
There he stood on stage, donned in khaki carpenter slacks and picnic table checkered button up shirt, tall and gangly as the day is long and sporting black rim eyeglasses trademarked by the Warren Commission. This guy certainly looked the part of some relic from a Norman Rockwell painting, but could it be? Could this descendent of songwriting royalty actually have the chops to live up to his name?
It would only take a few notes on his 64’ Epiphone, blended with his strained voice to sell me on this folky throwback. The look, the sound and the believability of Earle’s art was something refreshing and different from what most under-30 musicians where putting out. I knew diving into Earle’s fairly young, but intriguing body of work was something well worth the experience.
Named after the beloved Austin hellraiser Townes Van Zant and his father, Steve Earle, Justin Townes Earle was something of a legend around the Nashville live music scene before he even turned 15 due to his ferocious appetite for drugs and booze. By his mid-teens JTE had spent time in several bands with music genres ranging from bluegrass to alt rock. He was a guitarist and keyboardist for his father’s touring band the Dukes, but was reportedly fired after his drug problems began interfering with his performances. It was reported that Justin Townes Earle went through a history of rehab stints, frequent overdoses and plenty of time being homeless before he dropped the hard drugs and focused on his music and craft.
Nowadays, Earle is being recognized more for his art than the rambling ways of his youth.
Like most kids coming up in the 90s, Nirvana was an inspiring and influential part of Earle’s musical adolescence. But for JTE it wasn’t Nirvana’s electric-fueled Seattle grunge that caught his attention, but a Leadbelly cover song the band performed on its “unplugged” album. “I discovered this type of music that spoke like I spoke and like my granddad spoke and told stories the way I liked to hear stories told,” Earle told The New York Times in 2009.
This led to Earle’s obsession with Woody Guthrie folk ballads and eventually with the blues.
Earle’s most mainstream success came with his 2010 release, Harlem River Blues, which seemed to be much broader and less country-folk than his prior two albums. But after recently giving a second listen Earle’s second studio album, Midnight at the Movies, I’m convinced this collection of songs portrays JTE’s most desirable songwriting attributes in the best light. On Movies, Earle showed that simple and bold can certainly outshine complex and epic when told through certain eyes.
While its indie rock influences are apparent, Movies for me brings out a pre-WWII era in music in which old-timey string arrangements mesh perfectly with the blues and enduring lyrics. This could explain how he ended up with Old Crow Medicine Show, Gillian Welch and Mumford and Sons on the Big Surprise Tour in the first place. Earle’s sound, while slightly more indie than the artists previously mentioned, still carries an undeniable air of American musical roots.
In “Mama’s Eyes,” Earle focuses the attention away from his heralded father and to his mother, who JTE on many occasions has said does not get enough credit for raising him virtually alone while Steve was off “being a musician.” The song, in fact, seems like a personal apology for the hell his wilder years put his dear ole Mom through — something most sons can identify with, to an extent.
Earle found a spot on the record for one of his earliest songs in “Halfway to Jackson” and it seems right at home with its upbeat tale of getting over woman who’s been quite unkind. Earle wrote this bluesy track while living in the Nashville area as a teenager.
After first hearing Jose Feliciano’s version of “In My Life,” John Lennon said it was as if he wrote it to be performed in the alluring nature in which the Feliciano arranged it. Paul Westerberg must have thought something along those lines the first time he heard Earle’s delightfully different take of the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait.” The string bass and violin accompany Earle’s aged but young voice to make this cover hauntingly brilliant.