by Jane Roser
“My mom noticed that I probably wanted to do it long before I did.” Justin Townes Earle and his wife are driving back to Nashville and we’re chatting about the first record we ever bought (his was AC/DC’s Highway To Hell) and the moment he knew that he wanted to follow in his father’s (Steve Earle) footsteps and choose music as a profession.
“Like a lot of kids who grew up in Nashville, I was completely turned off by the music lifestyle. That was something that pushed me away from the industry for sure, but I think once I hit 13 it started changing for me, so when I turned 15 I left home and I was gone. Like a rocket.”
Earle is very open about his criticism of what the Nashville he loved as kid has now become. Almost everything he grew up with is gone or unrecognizable, replaced by condos and a convention center. “They even changed the name of my fucking neighborhood,” says Earle. “It was called Sevier Park and now they call that whole area 12 South; who the fuck do they think they are?”
The influx of outsiders moving into Nashville has caused some tension, as well. I remember a friend of mine once told me that few people are actually from Nashville and Earle understands this. “The people who are moving there have absolutely no respect for the history of the city; one of the people from that stupid TV show Nashville said that we enjoy our new found reputation and no, no we don’t,” he says. “They are extremely arrogant people who have no idea about the culture they’ve dropped into and think that just because they have a fiddle in their band or a steel guitar that they’re country. They’re sadly mistaken.”
With albums fraught with themes of despair, abandonment and hopelessness, Earle’s career has been an emotional see-saw of personal highs and lows, culminating with his sixth studio album, Absent Fathers. Released January 13th on Vagrant Records, the ten track record follows last year’s Single Mothers (the titles refer to Earle’s parents) and could have essentially been a double record, but Earle decided to release them as separate entities.
“I was seriously toying with the idea of doing a double record,” Earle explains, “but there was a time issue. In order to get the record out near what we were shooting for…it’s hard to set up a double record…and I see them as one body of work. I felt it was a lot to ask people to sit down for an hour and listen to it, so I thought that giving it in more digestible doses was better.”
Working with a four-piece band this time around was something new since his previous albums had a lot of instrumentation and big production behind it. Earle wanted to give it a different spin and stripped down feel, which accompanying musicians such as Paul Niehaus (Calexico, Lambchop) on pedal steel were able to help him accomplish while not losing his original vision. Earle is very precise about the number of songs on his albums, saying, “I write as many as I need and there’s never been any extra lying around.”
One track that especially garnered my attention was “Day and Night”: “What can I say, what will I have to show? I’ll be remembered for the love I made or everything I stole. Now the sun is going down and I’ll be damned if it don’t look like snow. But the heavens on me hold no guarantee. But day and night, change and uncertainty.”
“I try not to [write] anything that doesn’t quite come from a natural process,” says Earle. “I think forcing ideas is a very bad way to go. My songs are not as autobiographical as my fans think, they’re a lot of other people in there because our situations aren’t always the same and they’re usually not as interesting as people think they are. There’s admission in that song and recognition of the fact that what you used to do will not work anymore. The fact that just because you’re moving on and in a happier place doesn’t mean that life is going to be great.”
As a writer, Earle feels that the day he stops challenging himself is the day he quits making music. “It’s just exciting to find different ways to get your words across to people,” says Earle, “it has to be regarded with the utmost respect, there’s too many people who made their first great record and then did absolutely abysmal after that.”
Earle will be in Arden, DE at Arden Gild Hall on February 26th, the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center in York, PA on February 27th and Sellersville Theater in Sellersville, PA on March 2nd. On the road since September, touring is something Earle loves to do saying, “I’ve never been good at what happens in the real world at home. The one thing that I do know how to do and I’m very confident in is being on the road, but my career is not number one to me anymore, my wife is, so that’s something that does have to be put in check a bit. You need to realize, more than ever, you have to leave the entertainer on stage [when you’re home].”
With a famous father who was absent for most of his life and a famous godfather (Townes Van Zandt) who lived and died tragically, Earle may be following in their footsteps, but learns from their mistakes and lives his life on his terms. Speaking of Townes Van Zandt, Earle says, “I always hate to burst people’s bubble about Townes, but he was the kind of man who told the kids a scary story, then turned off all the lights and shut the door. He was one of the greatest songwriters of all time and anyone who disagrees with this is bullshitting, but when you know these men…like my father, all these people think he’s a great man and well, I know what really goes on. The image of them is definitely great songwriters, but nobody to base your life after.”
Earle’s breath-of-fresh-air frankness makes him easily relatable. His songs, tinged with sadness and frustration, resilience and recovery, make him someone to inspire us.