The name Justin Townes Earle tells several stories. The middle name pays homage to Townes Van Zandt, and his last name … well, yes, he’s Steve Earle’s son.
But Justin Townes Earle has made a name for himself; his music is truly his own. Like his father, he’s a country musician who frequently strays from the Nashville mainstream. Like both his father and his father’s mentor, Townes Van Zandt, he’s battled drug addiction.
He’ll be returning to Stagecoach on Friday, April 28.
His most recent albums, released in 2014 and 2015 respectively, were titled Single Mothers and Absent Fathers. During a recent phone interview, Earle talked about the differences between the similar albums.
“I ended up getting frustrated with the first record, Single Mothers,” Earle said. “I ended up writing Absent Fathers during (a) second year. They ended up coming together, because they were written really close to each other. I wouldn’t haven’t written Absent Fathers if I didn’t have that second year of frustrations I had with Single Mothers.
“I think, as an artist, I listen to a lot of different types of music. I think my records definitely have more of an Americana sound or whatever it is. … I paid more attention to my Replacements records and things like that. The new record I’ve made is more of a blues record, more along the lines of the Harlem River Blues album. Nobody should ever expect me to make the same record twice, or (for the records to) even to be in line with each other. I’m a whimsical motherfucker.”
As for that new record, just a couple of days after our interview, it was announced that Kids in the Street would be released May 26.
“During my early career, I would take a year between records,” Earle said. “Then I started taking two. It’s definitely time (for a new record).”
I asked whether taking more time between records helps or hinders his creative process.
“Really, I found it more frustrating to wait more than a year,” he replied. “I get a group of songs done, and I have time to second-guess them. I end up doing rewrites, edits and all kinds of things that maybe needed to be done, and maybe didn’t. But that’s up to the individual song. I do prefer the faster pace of work, but life doesn’t allow for that too much anymore.”
While he respects his father’s political music, Earle said he’s not a big fan of mixing politics and music.
“It’s not that I’m not interested in it; it’s something I think for me, personally, I would approach it very carefully,” he said. “I’m not happy about either political party. It’s been, ‘I’d rather vote for Jeffrey Giraffe instead of this person.’ It’s been like that my whole lifetime. I’ve always seen music as the Grand Ole Opry, the Louisiana Hayride, and this thing where everyone can go, which is a high for society. I want my music to be where you don’t have to believe what I believe to feel comfortable at one of my shows. I think we have very few bonds between Americans today.
“I don’t disagree with my father’s music, because that’s what he does. He’s really good at it. But it’s just not what I do. I feel like it works its way into my songs, but I tend to use more social ideas, and it tends to be buried. I write about people issues, everyday life issues and local issues.”
Earle said his father pays a price for his politics.
“I think that after years, you can’t go to a Steve Earle concert expecting anything different. But recently, it doesn’t go over very good for him in the South,” he said. “People will get up and leave one of his shows pissed off. It does happen, and that’s only because they didn’t do their homework, and they only remember ‘Copperhead Road’ and nothing else. But I wonder how big his crowds would be had he not gone that direction. Those people don’t come to the shows anymore.”
Justin Townes Earle now lives on the West Coast, after living in New York City. However, Earle said he misses the South.
“I’ve always missed things about the South, no matter where I’ve lived. It’s what I grew up with,” Earle said. “People aren’t as communal anywhere else as I’ve seen growing up in the South. I don’t know what it is, but there’s a certain niceness to Southern people that doesn’t exist anywhere else, and it’s a certain kind of nice. It’s just familiar to me.
“I miss Nashville—and that’s not anything you can see anymore. It’s gone. It’s buried, and the rate at which Nashville gentrified is just astounding. It’s not that it was a better place when I grew up. It was rough, and it was a dangerous city in the ’80s and ’90s. There was no industry; most of the inner city was poor and rough. … But my mom always got to take me back to the place where she got a burger when she was a little girl and the toy store where her dad bought her toys. I got to do all that stuff with my mom when I was growing up, and I can’t do that with my kid.”
As for his addiction days, Earle said they are behind him.
“I was 24 years old when my first EP came out, and I’m 35 now. There’s a drastic difference,” he said. “I’m also a married man now, and definitely a lot more stable of a human being than I used to be. I guess the self-destructive bomb found its way out of me. I do believe it has a lot to do with my wife, and if we’re happy with life, we’re not going to try to alter it. But I’m also not going to start writing songs about walking on sunshine and things like that.”
The last time Earle played Stagecoach, in 2013, his tour bus was parked right next to the Palomino stage. He said he enjoyed the diversity of the festival.
“For as big of a festival as it is, it’s laid out very well,” he said. “I’ve never played a large festival like that where I could put my bus right by the stage. I love that about it. It’s set up very well, and it’s very easy to get around. It’s really interesting how that festival is evolving in a big way. There’s definitely been this new look in the past several years of looking at the popular country vibe and doing that because people love that, but also bringing in some obscure acts that sound different. I think that it’s become a very progressive festival; a lot of other festivals get stuck in their ways.”