Town & Country: The Geography Of Justin Townes Earle’s Songs

photo by Joshua Black Wilkins

From his first EP through his latest batch of songs, Justin Townes Earle has written probingly and eloquently about the rootlessness of touring life. His subjects are often the people and especially the places he misses, even as he hints that something darker may be pushing him forward, never letting him linger or stall. “I know the troubles that plague a troubled mind,” he sings on the “Wanderin’,” “but they can’t catch me, I’m a’wanderin’.” As a result, his catalog represents a travelogue through America from the rural outposts to the big city.

Yuma,” the title track from his 2007 debut EP, is presumably about a small town in central Kentucky, but Earle sings it from the point of view of a young man. Despairing of busy, purposeless urban life, he yearns for the comforts and consolations of home in this quiet acoustic ballad, which ends in suicide –a freeing rather than a damning last act.

“South Georgia Sugar Babe” is similar in that it’s about a man who wants to be somewhere that he’s not, but the two songs couldn’t be more different. Driven by a raunchy organ riff and a dexterous snare roll, this rambunctious track from his 2008 full-length debut, The Good Life, is all excitement and lusty anticipation, as Earle makes his way down to Savannah to meet up with a woman and take her dancing, among other pursuits.

On his 2009 album Midnight At The Movies, “Halfway To Jackson” finds Earle hopping a Memphis-bound train out of Nashville and fleeting a relationship turned cold. “I’m halfway to Jackson, and I ain’t missing you so far,” he taunts, as his guitar mimics the reassuring chug of the engine.

After leaving Tennessee, Earle moved to New York City, settling first out near the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn before moving to Manhattan. He chronicled that community in the stoic break-up song “One More Night In Brooklyn,” a spare, steady-paced number from Harlem River Blues that describes the last efforts to hold a relationship together. “It’s one more night in Brooklyn,” he sings as if knowing it’s all futile. “Baby, that’s all I can take.”

Even though he spent more time on the road than at home, songwriting was a means of keeping his connection to New York City, which is evident in “Working For The MTA,” another stand-out on Harlem River Blues. Set in the Metro Transit Authority tunnels connecting the five boroughs, it’s not your typical country-music train song, although the endless tracks evoke the same sense of loneliness and pathos – only this time in literal darkness.

For a year in the 2000s, Earle lived in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, where he says heroin and crack were too readily available for him to avoid. He only got one song out of the experience, but it’s a doozy: The penultimate track on Harlem River Blues, “Rogers Park” is an aching piano ballad that could be a late-70s Springsteen track, a lovely neighborhood tour that evokes his lost hopes and dreams.