:: Justin Townes Earle :: Larimer Lounge :: March 25 ::
By Brian F. Johnson
Getting canned from your dad’s place of employment is something that lots of sons have done — some have even mastered it. But if you’re a talented musician touring with your famous dad’s national band and you get the axe, you really have to screw up hard. And screwing up hard is something that Justin Townes Earle learned early on in life.
The son of the great Steve Earle, Justin, who is also named after the late legend Townes Van Zandt, blew a record deal while he was still in his teens, wrote and lost a ton of songs and damn near died before turning it all around. “That’s one thing my dad and I have in common, it just happened to me at a much earlier age and a more rapid pace. I was 18 and 19 years old and out on the road playing with my dad and I had a bad heroin and cocaine problem. He managed to put up with it because I rode with the crew, but it came to a head, a point where I was waking up and cracking a beer and getting high and trying to work and it got to where it wasn’t working,” Earle said in a recent interview with The Marquee from his home in Nashville.
Earle candidly continued that while that should have been a big wake-up call, it took a while longer for things to sink in. “I am my father’s son and I had to let it take me as low as it could without dying. I lived on people’s couches. For a while I lived in the nastiest hotel in Nashville with the two dirtiest hookers in Nashville, Tennessee, and then I ended up on the street. I had a major overdose — not my first — that about destroyed my respiratory system and put me in the hospital for a week. About a week after I got out of the hospital, while attempting to still do what I was doing before, I figured that it might be time for a change,” Earle said.
Earle has now had his addictions behind him for some time, and with a new debut release on Bloodshot Records, The Good Life, he is as focused as he’s ever been. “I just can’t help but smile, because I love my record,” he said.
The Good Life has a long history with Earle, as some of the songs have been with him for the better part of ten years, but as he was quick to point out, it’s only “technically” his debut. “Last year I released a solo EP on my own, called Yuma. I just sold it at shows and on the net, but I sold 3,000 copies, essentially out of the back of my truck with no backing, no publicity, no nothing. I feel pretty blessed I was able to eat all last year because of that,” Earle said.
While it would make sense then for Earle to have re-recorded some of the tracks from Yuma for this release, the 25-year-old who seems wise beyond his years, said that’s not his style. “There’s two things I don’t do: I don’t re-record songs and I don’t record other people’s music. Bloodshot is going to re-release Yuma so all of those songs will be available and they’re fine in the state they’re in. Good Life is just the next step up from that,” he said.
While The Good Life is essentially a country record, there’s also some singer/songwriter elements to it as well and Earle said that his live show parallels that. Some of the dates on this tour, including his CD release party and his shows at SXSW, will have a full band, but much of the tour will consist of just himself, and banjo/mandolin/ harmonica player, Cory Younts, accompanying. “Cory and I discovered that we have this sibling-esque harmony thing going on,” Earle said. “So I’m very comfortable to step up on stage with just a guitar, but what Cory and I do together is make it as close to a 1950s Opry show as we possible can. Because it is entertainment, by God.”
Earle said that part of what made this record so good in his mind was some mis-spent time with other bands in his youth, which helped him to discover who he was and how to be true to that. During his early years he joined a band called The Swindlers, with “a bunch of friends,” and during his time with them he wrote several songs that appear on his current album, including “Hard Living,” “South Georgia Sugar Babe” and “Far Away In Another Town.” From there, however, Earle joined up with the Distributors, “and that was just mis-spent time there. I wrote a bunch of songs for that project but it just wasn’t me. I mean, I wear pearl-snap shirts, cowboy boots and I grease my fucking hair and playing rock and roll Moog synthesizer just doesn’t fit with me. I grew up in a city, but I grew up in Nashville, so I’m still very much a country boy at heart. I’m the first generation in my family born in a city of any size,” Earle said.
The aforementioned blown record deal, looking back, Earle said may have been a blessing, because some of these songs would have ended up on that. Earle said that while a deal wasn’t properly inked, he had made arrangements with Lost Highway Records during a sober point in his youth, but by the time the project was ready to roll, he had “started getting fucked up again. This was seven years ago and Lost Highway had Ryan Adams at the time. They had all the ‘fucked-up’ they could handle. So I’ve had literally 10 years to think about this and I’m glad I didn’t make the record back then,” he said.
Earle also said it’s good to know that the future of his career and success of this album rests on his shoulders and not his family tree. “It’s great to have my foot in the door, but now I gotta keep it open,” Earle said. “People can have any expectation of me they want and expect me to be like by father, but that’s just not going to happen. If I spent my life trying to live up to people like Steve Earle and Townes van Zandt, I’d lead a miserable fucking life. All I can do is write what I write and do what I do.”
:: Justin Townes Earle ::
:: Larimer Lounge :: March 25 ::
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• Townes Van Zandt