INTERVIEW: Justin Townes Earle

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

He stands 6′ 5″ in his bare feet; 6′ 7″ with his boots on. But Justin Townes Earle slopes just a little bit-not in that comic hipster slouch, but more the gangly giant trying not to stand out in the crowd.

He stands 6′ 5″ in his bare feet; 6′ 7″ with his boots on. But Justin Townes Earle slopes just a little bit-not in that comic hipster slouch, but more the gangly giant trying not to stand out in the crowd. One could argue that his lineage and his company growing up distinguish the 25-year-old rootswriter, but truthfully, it’s more the foundation laid with his Bloodshot Records debut The Good Life.

Like his daddy, Grammy-winning populist iconoclast Steve Earle, JTE works to capture the voice, heart and life of working people. He’s theoretically music royalty, realistically one more f@#$ed up kid who crawled from the wreckage and spiritually someone who believes his place in the world might shine a light for others to find their’s with. His old school carny/camp-meeting/honky tonk tales of rootlessness, restlessness, and the coming of age in the 21st century offer a way of making what was resound with lives that are bound to what is.

Getting ready to embark on his bit of touring behind The Good Life, the dark-haired guitar player was philosophical, excited and mostly looking ahead, but grounded in the things he knows. With influences ranging from Kurt Cobain to Little Feat, the Pogues’ Shane McGowan to Bruce Springsteen and Townes Van Zandt-for whom he’s named-his vintage sounding music seems strangely fresh right now.

You’ve reached back with this record, yet it’s not strictly archival feeling…
My approach has always come naturally. My songs sound like old songs, but I’m not thinking about it. For the short-lived time I had a rock band, I had to really think about it. I think if you just write, you don’t worry about stuff… that’s where you get the best songs. I mean, I don’t know what “Americana” means… or if I’m an “Americana artist.” I know this isn’t your Daddy’s Country. It’s your Granddaddy’s country. I’ll say that. Then lyrically and the chord progressions–those jazzy diminished 7th chords–there’s a lot of Chet Baker in there. And Willie [Nelson].

There’s also a very common man aspect to it.
Look, people shouldn’t need a dictionary to f@#$ing understand music. Newspapers try to keep it between a 4th and 8th grade level. Look at Springsteen… with Born To Run, he made a very conscious decision to write like people talk. He wanted to sing like Roy Orbison, which is from a different place in his chest, and he wanted to make a Phil Spector Wall of Sound production record, but he really wanted to get back to Woody Guthrie. And that’s where he went from being Bruce Springsteen to the Boss.

And you don’t hear much of your father, beyond your voice in a certain part of your range.
You know, I wasn’t around him that much until my early teens, and even then he was touring. And we are different… Beyond that, I don’t live to please my father. I don’t need his approval. I’ve proven that over and over. He made Copperhead Road the way he did because he came out of rockabilly, and he didn’t wanna write about girls and cars for the rest of his life. That’s kinda why I made my record the way I did: you can’t call it a solid country, singer/songwriter, old-timey record ‘cause it’s not any one thing. N’awlins to Muscle Shoals to Memphis, it’s all sorts of music.

So it’s a premeditated record?
This whole record was conscious decision. I had a very big point to make… and this record dealt with a whole lot of things I don’t ever want to deal with again.

“Hard Living” was always gonna be the opener, and records need bookends, so it was always going to end with “Far Away In Another Town.” I wrote those and “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” all before I was 18. You know, I was 16 when I wrote “South Georgia Sugar Babe”… it’s a young song, but it felt well-crafted, and it held up. Plus it’s the beginning of troubles.

The album has a very restless, rootless feeling.
Well, it’s very personal. I wrote a couple of the songs with Scotty Melton. We were both going through the same things about the same time… so it represented the beginning of us slipping in our life. We’d’ve probably been hard addicted to drugs if we’d had the money.

Well, “Who Am I To Say” is a pretty nonjudgmental song that looks at a lot of wreckage.
I wrote it about an ex-girlfriend and a composite of several people that I know. The thing is, help’s there for whatever you need. You just have to ask for it-and then just want it. If you can get an egomaniac junkie to do that, well, there it is…

And you had a moment of realization…
[Laughing] Yeah, you know, when I went to treatment that last time, it wasn’t with any intention of staying clean. Rehab was like vacation. You knew that first hit was gonna be so good. But I ended up listening, heeding the advice of people, which is so unlike me. Now I do what I gotta do to stay clean… It makes it easier. I’m not late for shows, and when I wake up and look at what I wrote the night before, I don’t think, “What the f@#$…” Now I’m gonna show up and do my best. And I don’t have any crazy demands. All I want is a real sound guy and a good sound system.

Well, that said, you’re still pretty old school.
Oh, yeah. I wear a suit with rhinestones around the pockets and a cowboy hat. That or I grease it up, parted on the side and flipped back, like Ray Price. There was a lot of feeling in that music and those songs that you can’t touch today. Those people knew they were working an existing form, and they were great with it through the ‘60s. There was a certain amount of showmanship, too: those suits with a ridiculous amount of rhinestones, talking in nasal voices and telling jokes. They wanted to entertain people.

We don’t need another guy looking at the floor through his bangs. We have Morrissey already.

Well, that’s not exactly what you know.
Actually, Cory Younts is in my band… his father is Bobby Younts, who was a member of Mel Tillis’ Statesiders, and they’d go out onstage in what would be $13,000 custom Nudie suits every night with the handmade James Leddy zipper boots that matched.
And I only have one brown suit, so I match my shirt to my boots every night. I’ve got a blue shirt, a red shirt, and with the white shirts I wear natural buff boots. And I’ve got several Stetson hats to match.

And musically.

That’s just it. People should write about what they know. These old-timey bands of 19-year-old kids from New York City singing about plough horses? I mean, I don’t dislike cows, but I’m not gonna write about cattle… and I don’t have a ‘32 pick-up, or anything like that. I mean, I’m writing a murder ballad right now, but the killer’s driving a ‘93 Taurus. The form is about the form. That doesn’t change. But everything else you have to have your truth to make it real. My songs have city girls ‘cause that’s what I know about. It’s pretty simple really.


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