By Peter Lindblad
A wild, reckless youth, Earle, the offspring of notorious country-music outlaw Steve Earle, was out on the road playing guitar and keyboards in his dad’s band, and time and time again, he got himself into hot water.
“It was probably one of the best and worst experiences of my life,” says the younger Earle. “I was a completely out-of-control teenager. I found all kinds of trouble. I thought that with touring that was just a side of the business.”
The elder Earle, of course, has wrestled his own inner demons. His troubles with the law — including jail time for drug and weapon convictions — have been well-documented. Seeing that tough love was called for in this case, however, Earle fired his son. A hard lesson was learned.
“What I learned was that being on tour was 99 percent hard work, and that the road isn’t all playtime,” says Justin.
Now 25 years old and walking the straight and narrow, Justin Townes Earle is quietly earning a reputation as one of Americana’s most gifted young songwriters, and in March, he’ll release the hotly tipped Midnight At The Movies, the successor to 2007’s highly acclaimed The Good Life.
Dressed in vintage garb, Earle looks like he just stepped out of the Great Depression. And Earle’s songwriting, heavily influenced by traditional, old-time country and folk, seems born of that era as well.
But he isn’t beholden to bygone days. Taking inspiration from such disparate artists as The Replacements, Kurt Cobain, Jimmy Reed and, of course, his namesake, Townes Van Zandt, Earle’s sepia-toned songs may not seem modern, but neither are they shackled to the past.
To label them as merely revivalist would ignore the punk energy running through their veins and the sophisticated mix of blues and New Orleans jazz lurking in the weeds of Earle’s rich Americana.
It is, however, music that is inherently Southern. Being from Tennessee, Earle will cop to harboring a love for “good old country music,” but he is quick to add, “It’s not just about hillbilly. I love Dixieland and Delta blues.”
And it’s a good bet the light acoustic shuffles and fiddle-soaked, sunny swing of songs like “South Georgia Sugar Babe” and the title track of 2007’s The Good Life, respectively, will seep into the fabric of Midnight At The Movies, due for release March 3 on Bloodshot Records. Whether or not Earle ever tackles the subject of the Civil War again, as he did in The Good Life’s epic centerpiece “Lone Pine Hill,” is anyone’s guess.
“Most of my songs are about girls or cars,” Earle says with a laugh. “My dad … [found] as he got older, his crowd got hairier and uglier. That’s when he started doing girl songs.”
While his fascination with the female sex, and missing them, in particular, dominates his writings, the pride Earle has in the musical heritage of his home shines through. “All American music is ours,” says Earle, especially country.
And although he posits, “There’s no two ways about it: the [Civil War] was about slavery and the South was wrong,” Earle argues, “The dumb-ass rednecks that fly Confederate flags on their trucks” aren’t just in the South.
Also, Earle feels that while the North has largely forgotten about Civil War history, in the South, the number of battlegrounds and memorials to lost soldiers remind Southerners about the cost of that bitter conflict on a daily basis. For a songwriter like Earle, it’s impossible not to be informed by the South’s bloody past.
Interestingly, though, the title of Earle’s newest album alludes to a place far, far away from the South in both distance and perspective: New York City’s Times Square in the ’40s, where, amid the squalor, hustlers scratched out a meager living.
A fan of Beat generation writers William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, Earle says, “I love the imagery of dirty movie theaters, and junkies and criminals piling out of them.”
The raw, tearful heartache of classic country (“Poor Fool” and “What I Mean To You”) won’t be barred at the door of Midnight At The Movies, though. Nor will the dusty folk of Woody Guthrie or gritty Memphis soul or the makeshift cacophony of Tin Pan Alley poets. And a mandolin-laced cover of The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” bridges the generation gap.
Written in a nine-month period, and including two songs Earle wrote as a teenager, Midnight At The Movies represented a jumping-off point for the young songwriter. Soon after The Good Life was finished, he was anxious to begin anew. “I think that artistically it was a time to move on, to start figuring out what’s next,” says Earle.
Surrounding himself with musicians capable of interpreting his songs the right way is of the utmost importance to Earle.
Touring partner Cory Younts, who plays mandolin, guitar and banjo, is an essential part of the equation, as are longtime co-conspirators Skylar Wilson, Josh Hedley, Brian Owings, Pete Finney and Bryan Davies.
“I have to have people represent what I’m trying to say in my songs,” says Earle. “It’s absolutely vital to me whenever I’m recording.”
So far, with another album in the can called The City Tonight that may see release in 2009 and all the critical adoration thrown his way, Earle and his crew doing just fine bringing his vision to life.