Young earle gets act together
Steve Earle’s trouble-prone son gets his act together
Perhaps it’s because Justin Townes Earle has experienced famous-by-association status as the trouble-prone son of the once trouble-prone troubadour Steve Earle.
Or perhaps it’s because he fell into some of the more illicit trappings of fame — drug addiction, for instance — long before he had any real reason to be famous.
But now that the talented singer-songwriter’s star is on the rise for all the right reasons, he seems to have already had his fill of the spotlight.
Privacy and comfort are what the 29-year-old prizes now.
“A year ago I could walk out into the crowd and barely be noticed and walk into the bathroom . . .,” says Earle, in an interview from his home in Tennessee. “Now people talk to me while I’m (in the bathroom) and I don’t like that at all. I don’t like anybody talking to me (then). But, you know, whenever I get sick of it, I always remember I can always go back and get my job painting houses.”
Earle is no doubt being flippant about this potential career change. Unlike other showbiz kids exposed to the pitfalls of the family business, Earle never secondguessed what his vocation would be. It’s been an overriding passion since he was 13. While he may have dropped out of school early and indulged in some wild, drug-addled behaviour, his devotion to his craft was always absolute, he says.
“I dropped everything else,” he says. “I did nothing else for many years. All I did was write. There was a two-year period where I lived in the mountains in east Tennessee with a couple other songwriters and all we did, every day, was write. We’d wake up at 4 and write and play music until 7 or 8 in the morning and go to sleep and do the same thing over and over. I was 15 years old when I was doing that. It was a really great period for me as far as figuring myself out as a writer: what I was capable of . . . what I needed to work on.”
These years of study, selfeducation and self-reflection can be heard on his third record. Released last year to critical acclaim, Harlem River Blues is a pitch-perfect revue of roots-rock glory; from the mournful, autobiographical ballad Rogers Park, to the rockabilly-soaked Move Over Mama, to the gleaming hints of R&B found on Slippin’ and Slidin’.
But the best song may be the title track, a rollicking countrygospel shout-a-long in which the narrator plans to end his life by leaping into the Harlem River.
Decked out in a wonderfully geeky bow tie, Earle offered an exuberant performance of the song on the David Letterman Show recently. Suicide had never sounded so upbeat. “It wasn’t really about a specific person,” says Earle. “Although I did have a friend several years ago who took his life. And I talked to him right before it happened and it was actually the happiest I’ve ever heard him sound. I think that people who do that have genuinely made that decision that the world isn’t for them. But the song is also influenced by The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll. There’s a section in there where he talks about him and his friends jumping off the cliffs into the Harlem River.”
These days, the largely self-educated Earle admits he’s just as influenced by poets and literature as he is music. Since his work boasts the same maverick approach to country styles as both his father and his father’s mentor Townes Van Zandt (who provided Justin’s middle name), it might seem like Earle’s influences are clear-cut. But his musical journey was his own. In the 1980s, his discovery of post-punkers The Replacements and their songwriter Paul Westerberg wiped out the hair-metal horrors he had been listening to previously. He discovered Lead Belly through Nirvana, after Kurt Cobain gave a shout-out to the pioneering bluesman and performed Where Did You Sleep Last Night? on the band’s MTV Unplugged album. He found the thread from blues to grunge or rockabilly to punk, and it impressed upon Earle the importance of knowing your musical history.
“Even though they come from different parts of the country, they all come from working-class backgrounds,” Earle says. “When the Replacements came about, they could understand what Carl Perkins was talking about. So now, later, I understand what the Replacements were talking about and what Carl Perkins was talking about. I think that’s the evolution of the cycle.”