By Brian F. Johnson
“I’m a grudge-holding mother fucker and there are certain things I will never, ever forgive. That’s just the way I am. But I had to learn to choose what’s forgivable and what wasn’t,” said Justin Townes Earle, during a recent interview with The Marquee.
Earle, who is famously the son of Steve Earle and the godson of Townes Van Zandt, said that anger used to rule his life. As a child, Earle’s estranged father may not have been a daily fixture, but his dad’s addictive tendencies certainly were, and the young Earle was most definitely on a similar path.
“I walked around with an everybody-owes-me chip on my shoulder for a long time, and you know, obviously did not make the best choices in the world and life,” Earle went on to say. “I’m never going to say that I’m not still angry. I’m angry at things every day — stupid shit in the newspaper and all kinds of stuff. I wouldn’t say that my anger is well placed, because I don’t think that anger is ever well-placed. It’s too strong of an emotion. But I do think that I’ve learned to focus on knowing what I should be angry about, and knowing that it’s not going to do any fucking good.”
While his anger might be in check these days, the roots of it still provides Earle with a ton of material. His latest album Single Mothers was called “art therapy” by All Music, and finds Earle confronting his past struggles and indignations with an almost enlightened brilliance. In addition to Single Mothers, which was released in September, Earle will release the “sequel album” Absent Fathers this month.
“I wrote it to be a double record, but then I found out that Lucinda was putting out a double record and I don’t ever in my life want to go toe-to-toe with Lucinda Williams,” he said. “I went back and thought about how many double records have been made in the past 30 years that I would want to go back and listen to all the way through. If anybody can get away with it these days, it’s possibly the best songwriter in the world, Lucinda Williams. But I think it’d be unfair to count on attention spans being that long these days.”
Single Mothers lays the groundwork for both of the albums’ at least semi-auto-biographical character with the title track’s lyric “Single Mother, little daughter / blames a father, cause he never bothered. You’d be hard pressed to find someone to tell her she’s doing wrong /Single mother just gotta move on.”
Absent Fathers on the other hand shows the beginnings of a recovery for the character on the first record, even though the embittered lyrics from “Single Mothers” follows up with the verse, “Absent Father never offered even a dollar / he doesn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that he’s forfeited his rights to his own /Absent father, he’s long gone.”
“It’s sort of the light at the end of the tunnel. I mean it’s still a pinhole in the distance, but it’s a light nonetheless,” Earle said.
While some media outlets have erroneously reported that this work celebrates Earle’s first sober release, he clarified that most of his work has been completed during sober stretches. “All of my records were sober except for Harlem River Blues — every single one of them. I got clean when I was 22 years old and at the end of the Midnight at the Movies tour, leading into the Harlem River Blues tour, when I got arrested, I was messed up for about a year and a half again,” Earle said, acknowledging that songwriters like him have traded the cliché of banging junk and writing songs for the new cliché of getting sober and writing songs. “I couldn’t have made the records that I did fucked up. I think me ‘getting away with’ Harlem River Blues was a fluke, because I was not in a good space.”
A dispute with Mumford and Sons’ founder Ben Lovett and his Communion record label leading into Single Mothers and Absent Fathers pushed Earle to move over to Vagrant Records for this release, and Earle didn’t pull punches about how it all went down. “I already had the record written when the shit went down with Communion,” Earle said. “I had already signed the contract and they slow-walked me on it and then said I had agreed to write 30 songs — which anybody who knows me knows that I would have never fucking agreed to — and then let some kid still in their Pampers fucking pick the songs for me. Like, yeah right, I’m going to trust the fucking word of Ben Lovett?”
He continued to say that the popularity of Americana music isn’t doing any favors for the style of music he writes, and that is why he distinguishes himself from the genre that he is most often lumped into. “When anything gets popular, it loses its authenticity, because everybody wants to do it, and you know the Americana scene used to be made up of some of the best musicians in the world, but some of the so-called ‘Americana’ records that have come out in the last five years have been some of the worst shit I’ve heard in my life. It seems like all you gotta do is put a fucking banjo on your album and you’re Americana. I’ve been called Americana, country, I’ve been called the blues, I’ve been called indie, but I’m an American musician who happens to come from where all American music came from, so maybe I have a better clarity of it than people from other parts of the country.”
Justin Townes Earle eTown Hall January 9
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