If there is one thing that roots-country troubadour Justin Townes Earle has inherited from his father, it would be his knack for not mincing words. And if there is one other trait that is clear as day during the course of our conversation together, it is that Justin Townes Earle has a great grasp on where he has been and where he is headed in life.
The 27-year-old Earle was born in 1982, just a few years before his father’s music career would take flight in a major way. Some might argue that the younger Earle playing music is as natural as Colonel Sander’s kids going into the chicken business.
Justin cut his teeth in his father’s band The Dukes on and off for a number of years through the 90s and into the current decade. His solo career came about after being kicked out of his father’s band for escalating substance abuse after which point he intended on quitting music. “My substance abuse never interfered with my live performances,” he says down the line from Madison, Wisconsin. “But it was going to start doing so; it was f*ck*n’ my life up. After I was pitched out of The Dukes, I sold all my guitars and didn’t write a single song for two years. I had given it all up.
“But then I realized that I had the choice of dying in the streets or making something of myself,” he admits. “And finally, I decided that I didn’t want to be another link in the white trash train even though I will always be white trash from Nashville, Tennessee.”
From the desolate feel of the album’s track to the bluegrass slant of “Halfway to Jackson” and “They Killed John Henry”, Midnight At The Movies is an enthralling and compelling listen for fans of his father as well as Hank Williams Sr. Even Earle’s take on The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” is exquisite; infused with touches of mandolin while still staying true to the original.
White trash or not, one listen to Earle’s newest record and the listener is taken into his world; a world where his songs and lyrics betray his relatively young age and show an old, experienced soul doing what he does best: telling stories and making music.
Earle is extremely grateful for where he is at today and admits that the experience with his father gave him a wealth of knowledge that he is using to this day.
“I learned a lot of things about the business and how it runs. I had no false ideas that I was going to start making music but it is a little different for me than it is my Dad. He walks out of his bus, gets handed a guitar and plays his show,” Earle laughs.
“While I was on the road with The Dukes, it was more important for me to learn the business side as opposed to the performance side so I took notes of how people in the crew interacted with the venue crew and things like that… And performance wise, I learned to avoid dead space between songs. I grew up in the south and all my first gigs were all little honky-tonks where once you lost crowd’s attention, it was hard to get it back.”
Justin was given his middle name Townes as his father’s tribute to Townes Van Zandt, a Texan singer-songwriter and a hero and mentor to the elder Earle. When he and Van Zandt met in the 1970’s, Steve was immediately enthralled by Van Zandt’s troubadour life. Did Justin ever have the opportunity to meet his namesake?
“I met him when I was a kid. He was a very dark but interesting man,” he says. “When my Dad met Townes, Townes was 25 years old. Townes was a pretty man, wrote beautiful songs and was wild as shit. He had the ultimate poetic troubadour life at that point and everything went great for him for a long time but then it all started to fall to pieces.
“I’ll put it this way: It would be really wonderful if we were just musicians. But it’s called the music business for a reason.”
With such deep roots and experience in the music business, Earle need not worry about his destiny in the biz. The richness that his music holds will keep him busy for much longer than he needs to worry about.