The prodigal son
The musical journey is the life for Nashville’s Justin Townes Earle
Justin Townes Earle might be clean and sober and happily married these days, but don’t try and tell the Nashville singer/songwriter that he’s settled down. “I have no definite plans for the future except to be with my wife,” Earle said in a recent phone interview. “There’s no telling where I’m going to end up on the next record or where I’m going to move, if I move. I hope I never get anywhere or get to the point where I say, ‘I’ve got this.’ That’s the point where your journey stops. I never want to arrive. I want to keep the art going, going, going.”
Earle began writing songs as a teenager growing up fast in East Nashville. The son of Steve Earle—the hard-living Texas-based singer-songwriter who left the family when the Justin was a toddler—he was raised by his mom, Carol Ann Hunter, who worked three jobs to support herself and her boy.
The first of his two latest albums—released four months apart—is titled Single Mothers, and is a tribute to Hunter. But the title cut, like many of Earle’s songs, shouldn’t be taken literally.
“There’s some autobiographical content in there,” he said. “But they’re not 100 percent based on my experience. I like to base my songs on feeling. I write a hard beginning, middle and end. You’re writing something in shorthand, in the most condensed way you can. I would only reach 1 percent of people if I wrote, ‘I got sad and shot dope.’ If I write, ‘I got sad,’ people can relate.”
“Shooting dope” is a reference to Earle’s well-documented history of drug and alcohol abuse that began when he was 12 years old—“Have baggage, will travel,” he quipped. But the 33-year-old has been clean for more than two years, after a relapse that ended eight years of sobriety.
Single Mothers was released in September 2014, and its companion release, Absent Fathers, followed it in January.
“They were recorded at the exact same time in the same recording session,” Earle said. “We did 22 songs in 10 days. We didn’t overdub my vocals or guitar. We let the guitar player go in and do some solos.”
The new band that Earle recorded with includes Paul Niehaus of Calexico and Lambchop on guitar and pedal steel, and drummer Matt Pence and bassist Mark Hedman from the folk band Centro-Matic.
“It’s been amazing playing with those guys. They definitely have not been touched by the Nashville sound. I literally remember when I was 17 years old I wanted to play with Paul Niehaus and wanted to make a record with Centro-Matic,” he said. “I kind of got there.”
The two albums represent yet another change in Earle’s sound, which has moved from the folk and old-time blues of his early work through the gospel-tinged country of 2010’s Harlem River Blues, to his current Memphis-blues leanings.
“I have a severe lack of patience,” Earle said of his musical changes. “I’m probably the ADD poster child for America. There’s so much music I’ve been exposed to, being from the Southeast.
“With the exception of hip-hop, every single form of American popular music has come from the Southeast,” he added. “I’d love to make a traditional jazz record someday. But I’ll have to become a much better guitar player to do that.”
The band is still on the road supporting Single Mothers and Absent Fathers, and Earle says playing with a group has altered his performance style.
“I’m playing guitar completely differently,” he said. “The claw hammer banjo thing does not work with this band. We were looking at Booker T. and the M.G.’s. … Paul will answer me and I’ll answer him and we’ll get something going together.”
In addition to the musical changes, Earle admits that his process of songwriting has become more deliberate and intense. “I was a cocktail-napkin writer,” he said. “I just scribbled down lines whenever I could. That’s because I was constantly moving. My first couple records, I was doing 200 shows a year. I’ve become a desk writer now. … Now I take a lot more time with my songs. I’m more of a patient songwriter.”