Justin Townes Earle trades ghosts, leaving Nashville for New York
For some people, it’s hard to be the new kid on the block. For others, it’s what they seek. Speaking from his home in New York City, Justin Townes Earle’s southern twang makes its way through the phone line—the Nashville native tells me he was chasing the ghost of Woody Guthrie when he made the move to the Big Apple a year ago. He wouldn’t be the first; there was one Robert Zimmerman who did the same. Earle is, however, an anomaly in plenty of other ways.
The progeny of Steve Earle that inherited his name from Townes Van Zandt, Justin Townes Earle has enough to live up to—his dad just won another Grammy and has been a folk rock force for decades. Unlike most children of stars, though, he’s managing just fine as the proposed “next big thing” in country, and he’s bringing his pre-war acoustic blues to the Crepe Place on Friday, Feb. 12. Whereas his last show in town was a knockout solo scene-stealer (one in which I kept looking for the nonexistent second guitarist I was sure I was hearing), this time he’ll add upright bass and fiddle.
Blistering honky-tonk, soul-cutting croons, an unapologetic candor, string-splitting live performances—the 28-year-old has two critically acclaimed albums under his belt, 2008’s The Good Life and last year’s Midnight at the Movies. He was just awarded “Emerging Artist of the Year” at the most recent Americana Music Awards, and he’s bringing his love of hard-stomping, traditional southern song into the mainstream.
But to get to where he is today wasn’t exactly easy.
“I was like a little kid running around the streets of Nashville in jams that were passed down from my cousins and a pair of 2- to 3-year-old Air Jordans with my hair in a rattail,” Earle recalls of his childhood. “There’s something about that image of me that makes me run far—it’s like I’m still white trash from Tennessee but at least I drink it in some better cloth now.”
With his famous father on the road hitting stages (“Dad made money but he f****d off with most of it”), Earle grew up with his mother in the inner city. He gravitated toward trouble, and his memories are peppered with things he’s now putting behind him, including his infamous battle with heroin. “I lived and died of a heroin overdose in [Nashville]; I was just completely out of my mind,” he says. “So that city holds a lot of ghosts for me, not to mention that most of the disputes I’ve ever had with a human being, they live there; all ex-girlfriends and all that.” He adds, “It was just time to start over … I thought I was cutting myself short by staying in my hometown.”
Earle expresses a loving devotion to his mother and a strained relationship with his father in his standout song “Mama’s Eyes.” But despite Steve Earle’s absence during his time growing up, he says his father did give him his “biggest revelation in life.” While transfixed by Nirvana’s Unplugged album at the age of 12, it was his dad who told him Kurt Cobain didn’t pen “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” but, rather, one Huddie William Ledbetter. He was then given a Leadbelly record, a Roger Miller boxset and some Dylan, which he says “literally stood my world up on end and changed it completely.” From that point on, he switched from being a kid collecting grunge and Dr. Dre, to a kid studying gospel, blues and folk-infused country: “It turned my head and I absolutely never looked back. I haven’t really played an electric guitar since.”
Now Earle’s toting his acoustic guitar and songwriting that’s getting positive nods from the public—and from within his family. When I spoke with Steve Earle last September, he said of his son’s burgeoning music career, “[Justin’s] best songs are as good as anybody’s and he’s got a thumb like a jackhammer. So I’m a fan.”
“My father and I have had a very difficult relationship but we’ve arrived at being very good friends,” the younger Earle responds. “I’ve always looked at [Steve Earle] in two separate ways because he wasn’t exactly always father material, so I also stand back and look at it as one of the greatest songwriters of all time saying he’s a fan of my music. And it’s just cool. It’s really cool.”
Having cleaned up his habits and mended his relationship with his father, Earle’s replanted himself in the bustling New York art scene. And while most Nashville musicians make the crossover by infusing their country music with pop, Earle makes the crossover by infusing pop culture with his country music. He may be loyal to what he calls “primitive southern music,” but he also enjoys sporting the kind of polished threads that had GQ magazine naming him one of 2009’s fashion icons. He says he’s “wearing nicer clothes and pants that fit me because I have access to them now,” and he’s not about to apologize for expanding his career into the fashion world—a lesson he’s taken from the struggles of his predecessors: “Townes [Van Zandt] was a great songwriter but for a lot of reasons he nearly starved for most of his career. I’m not one of those people who say, ‘It’s art, you’re not supposed to make money off of it if it’s pure.’ It’s like, gimme a break, well then go start flipping burgers and writing songs and playing in coffeeshops.”
Still, Earle’s Tennessee roots have followed him to his new East Coast digs. He admits that he misses biscuits and gravy and laughs at the fact that already, regardless of whether they’re familiar with his music or not, “everyone in the East Village knows me as a giant, tall, loudmouth southerner.”
Like life imitating art, Earle now seems to be making the title of his debut album a reality. “I came to a place in my life when I realized, not to sound cheesy and churchy, but every day that I can suck wind is a good day,” he begins. “I used to want to die, that’s what drove my drug addiction for years. I don’t feel the need to die anymore. It’s always a good day here in Manhattan.”
Justin Townes Earle performs at 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12, at The Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 429-6994.