I know there’s an angel just for rock ‘n rollers
Watching over you and your daddy tonight — Little Rock & Roller
Justin Earle never seemed to be afraid of anything. A lanky little boy, he’d turn up sometimes caught on fire and ready to take on the world. By the time, his dad had some success, the dark-headed child with the hubcap eyes that took in everything was immortalized on the second side of the iconic debut Guitar Town.
Caught between Earle’s self-defining declaration “Fearless Heart” and the acapella bluegrass of “On Down,” “The Road,” “Little Rock & Roller” was an aching phone call home. From a payphone somewhere near the Arkansas line. A tiny bit of chanson verité, the erstwhile lullaby – a father stunned his child can answer the phone stumbles into the reality of “I guess I didn’t know you could do that/ Lord help me, have I been gone that long?” – in some ways set Justin Townes Earle’s destiny in motion.
Telling the child not to get his mama, savoring the few stolen minutes before getting back on the bus, Earle absorbs all he can – and tells his son not to be afraid, to get some sleep, to dream and know he’s always loved. Funny how what was once literal can be metaphoric and then literal again.
Justin, with the middle name invoking his father’s mentor and friend Townes Van Zandt, was destined for songs. Even more than the drug addiction he battled from puberty, there were pains in his heart, a joy inside, too, that needed to live in songs. And so, after a few local bands, the inevitable rose – and Justin Townes Earle started carving out a place for himself in the Americana world.
In 2008, The Good Life appeared on Chicago’s insurrected Bloodshot, home to Robbie Fulks, the Mekons, Alejandro Escovedo, the Bottle Rockets and Neko Case. Stark, it featured Dustin Welch, Chris Scuggs and a very young Amanda Shires on the cover. But just as his father reset Nashville with his bulked-up blue-collar rock-country, JTE turpentined everything down to the essence – and wrote a record about lonely, broken, hopeful and a bit brash.
That old school charm –chartered in part by Mississippi roots master R.S. Field — offered an almost time warping trip into ‘50s/’60s taverns where Wurlitzer jukeboxes reined and the Opry was something people waited for on Saturday night radio’s across the Midwest and Southeast.
A charming record, it introduced a young man with a lot of baggage, two big names to carry around and a musicologist’s sense of what he wanted to embrace – and. where he wanted to go. There was a Dickensian (Charles, but also Jim) innocence to the young man who’d already OD’d five times – and had lived to tell, not brag.
Long legs demi-tucked up and sprawling out under the table of the funky sports bar in East Nashville, on the verge of leaving for the first tour for his first album, we laughed about the déjà vu and the inevitability of it all. Hard to believe the child I’d first met during the sessions for his father’s Exit Zero, the follow-up to Guitar Town, was embarking on the same dream.
Harder still to believe, in a true Ecclesiastes manner, I was profiling Justin for The Los Angeles Times, the same way I’d written his father’s first national piece for Tower Pulse all those years ago. We laughed about that, about feeling old, sometimes lost and out of place, but knowing that fate understands what we all merely tilt at.
We talked about the life he’d led, the drugs, the street running, the bad company, the broken heart, the lost child and always the hope. Music and addiction give that to you, but the talent – that’s something you have to hone. There’s no genius pass when you’re a songwriter, no “just let it fly” when you were raised around the kinds of artists and music JTE was.
He won the Americana Music Association’s 2009 Best New/Emerging Artist. He showed up in Billy Reid, looking every bit the dapper young artist on the rise in a red velvet Billy Reid suit, closely tailored and retro enough to mirror his sound.
His manager Tracy Thomas, who’d worked for E-Squared when Steve and Jack Emerson founded a small label, looked every bit the proud mama. Known for her tenacity and ability to soothe troubled souls, the woman who’s gone on to manage Jason Isbell and was a force in the Drive-By Truckers’ world, Thomas was midwifing a tender heart who wrote with empathy and the cracked determination of an empty generation seeking their place.
Midnight at the Movies and the gospel-flecked Harlem River Blues continued the walk-about through roots, influences and old school aesthetics. Like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Justin understood how to make the antique contemporary, to create a vital sense of now out of something that was so lovingly out of time.
He struggled, too. Yes, he won at 2011 Americana Music Award for Best Song for “Harlem River Blues,” hair parted down the middle like Alfalfa from “The Little Rascals,” round glasses and that scarecrow body. Looking as much Dust Bowl chic as hipster nerd, it seemed Justin was finding a way to be his own man. even if the white-knuckle whispers suggested his demons were always close by.
Still, Justin had that angel quality that made people root for him. Calling from Denmark for a story about Children of the Credibility Revolution, he was thoughtful, disarmingly honest, willing – perhaps too willing — to talk about the misadventures that were as Earlean as the prodigious gifts of writing and culling music at the source.
When Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, an album he’d been flirting with when we’d talked, arrived, it was a naked sort of wrestle that reckoned and buckled under the truth of how we mess our lives up. That was Justin’s native ground: loneliness, broken hearts, abandonment, yearning, alienation and always the way shadows. Inevitably creep.
That sadness and the shuddered off sense of “I’m okay” permeated so much of the music, the kid whose looks were as much Hank Williams Senior as they suggested his own parents offered a refuge for anyone battling disappointment. Listening to Justin Earle, you didn’t feel so alone in your alone. Someone else had been there, his songs suggested, and knew the pain; but also lived to tell, to conjure these soft melodies, these words to let you know you’d make it.
Only somehow, Justin never quite got to the other side. Always slip-ups, backslides, missing chunks. Ultimately, a man’s choices are his own. Justin knew that, too.
“Look, I was 20 years old, a junkie on the street,” he said all those years ago. “If you don’t think that’s a dose of reality… “I. figured out pretty quick that nothing’s owed me cause of the name I carry.
“Sure, it may get the door open, but then it’s a pretty heavy door, because it comes with expectations. I’m not intimidated by [the name]… and I’ve always been a fighter – I’ve got the two fake front teeth to prove it – so I’m not worried about it.”
Single Mothers and Absent Fathers followed four albums for Bloodshot. Recorded for emo/punk powerhouse, the two-album song cycle explored that legacy, the wounding and also the marks left. Like everything, there was room on the tracks to let the light come in and the pain out.
By the time Justin landed on New West, Kids In The Street had a joie du something. Always one to find the bright in the dark, Earle seemed to be seeking a new kind of joy. On the verge of parenthood, perhaps there was a turn.
Still, for all the crossed fingers and held breath, all the second chances and nine lives lived, there was a fragility to Justin that underscored everything. Not quite Jeff Buckley, he understood that the brittle places are the ones that made us precious – and in that, in those songs, perhaps he forged the thing that had gone unstated. His art was not washed in brio, even when he brought bravado to the table – and that allowed the disaffected, the uncertain, the depressed and rejected a comfort and even a bit of dignity.
That his last project was The Saint of Lost Causes seems prescient in the rearview. Evocative, vibey, it pulled you in, twisted his sense of historic, all those influences, he invoked a white working-class blues with guitar tones that buzzed and churned inside. He took on truths for the outcasts, the poor, the cast off, pulled songs out of disparate influences and always put his own sad-eyed self out there.
A gamut run, The Saint of Lost Causes surveyed all the things he’d explored. “Appalachia Nightmare” was raw knuckled Winters Bone kind of stuff, while the acoustic juke of “Don’t Drink the Water” impaled the toxic waters of Flint, Michigan balanced by the must live euphoria of the rockabilly “Flint City Shake It.” There was the atmospheric of “Memphis in the Morning,” a shuffling minimal blues street corner invitation “Say Baby” and the steel-guitar’n’cocktail drum kit self-reckoner “Talking To Myself” to offer the phases and stages of one man trying to move through the world.
Tragedy, triumph, torment. At 38, Justin Earle was too young to be gone. Yet at 38, it’s almost a miracle there were this many years, this many records and songs. Still…
When the social media posts went up, because that’s what they do, someone drew on what was perhaps the best unintended elegy from his catalogue. Always restless, always seeking, he summed his life up perfectly.
“I’ve crossed oceans
Fought freezing rain and blowing sand
I’ve crossed lines and roads and wondering rivers
Just looking for a place to land…”
No cause of death was given, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe all that matters is that he lived…
Today, tears and songs are all that’s left. For all the people who loved him, the ones closest and two rings out, it’s unthinkable – and for those of us, even those who were the occasional beneficiaries of his conversations and his smiles, there’s the jarring notion of how temporal all this is.