As wild as the experience may have been, Earle sees it as formative and absolutely essential to his later songwriting. “I wanted to see what the hill people were all about,” he explains. “It was very much a musical journey. I’ve f***ed up a lot of things personally in my life, but I’ve been able to make pretty good decisions as far as my art’s concerned, and that was one of those times. Given that in Nashville I had tons of distractions and I couldn’t go anywhere and couldn’t focus on anything I made a conscious decision that I wanted to go some place where life was a little simpler.”
His next stop, however, was much less conducive to creativity, although it proved instructive in very different ways. “Right when I turned 18, I moved to Chicago. I went from being a strung-out kid in a mountain town where all you could get your hands on were pharmaceutical opioids to being in a town where you can buy five-dollar bags of heroin on any corner.” It was less an awakening than a narcotic lull, and Earle found himself too distracted to write: “I had been there for about six months and I had only written one song.” That’s when he knew he had to go home.
Earle is extremely candid about his drug use. He has to be, as his various relapses and recoveries threaten to overshadow his musical achievements and define his career. Returning to Nashville, he was thrown out of his father’s touring band for excessive heroin use. He OD’ed, then cleaned up. He fought his worst urges every day. Last year, right around the release of Harlem River Blues, he had a disastrous meltdown on stage in Indianapolis and was arrested for public intoxication, among other charges. At the height of promoting an excellent album, he postponed his tour to go back to rehab.
“I shot heroin and smoked crack for years,” he says, “and you know who that hurt? That hurt me. We do damage to the people around us with our drug problems, but we don’t ever hurt anybody more than we hurt ourselves. I think junkies forget that, and I think that’s what kills them most of the time. I’m the one who has to live with the fact that my liver’s f***ed up at 29 years old and I’m probably going to have a heart attack when I’m in my mid thirties. That’s why I tend to be pretty cavalier about it. It’s my problem, and I deal with it myself. Other people like to make my problems their problems, but that’s their f***ing choice.”
Jason Isbell has toured extensively with Earle and played lead guitar on Harlem River Blues. “From my experience it always seemed like he’s been in control,” Isbell says. “I’m glad he talks about it, and I’m glad he’s on the other side of it. I feel like Justin’s more devoted to the craft of songwriting than just about anybody else I know. He’s used that devotion to overcome any struggles he’s had with drugs or with personal relationships or anything. What seems to be first and foremost to him is writing good songs. I think he uses that to beat any demons he might have.”
Jessica Lea Mayfield, who opened for Earle throughout most of 2010 and was there for the debacle in Indianapolis, agrees. “We both have the same mindset and the same mental struggles,” she says. “He’s me if I were a man. But I always feel perfectly comfortable out on the road with him. I always feel at home.”
There’s a temptation to read – and possibly misread – Earle’s struggle with substance abuse into his songwriting. “Why do I try my luck? I should never touch that stuff,” he sings on “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” a standout track from Harlem River Blues that doesn’t cover but subtly appropriates the elusiveness of Little Richard’s 1956 hit of the same title. That one’s obvious. But this line, from “Turn Out My Lights” on his 2008 debut The Good Life, is a bit more ambiguous: “You’re here with me every night, when I turn out my lights.” From anyone else, it might sound like a bittersweet lullaby, but from Earle, it takes on a sadder, more sinister tone. “I do make references to it,” he explains, “but I try to make it completely relatable. I rarely ever try to talk about the actual function of being a drug addict as I do the emotions of it. That’s the gray area. If you hit the right emotions, you can make anybody relate to a junkie, but if you talk about the function of the life, that runs people off. Nobody wants to hear poetic war stories about bad needles and shit like that.”
Earle doesn’t consider himself cured – or even curable – but he is at a good place, especially compared to where he was a year ago. Much like his father’s legacy and his own doomed relationships, and much like locations and travel, drug abuse is one subject from which he makes complex and durable music, soulful and wild and yearning. It defines him, for better or for worse, which means that wherever he goes, he’ll never get away from himself. Nor would he want to.
“I come by what I do naturally,” he says. “My music is very much based in old gospel, country, and blues, and I come by that honestly. I am one generation removed from the hills of eastern Kentucky on my mom’s side, and I’m one generation removed from poor dirt farmers from Texas. I’m always going to be white trash from Middle Tennessee. No matter where I go, no matter what I do, no matter what I accomplish, that’s what I am. The people who remember that, they’re the ones who have less complicated lives.”