Give him credit, despite the benefits of being the scion of one of American music’s greatest songwriters, Justin Townes Earle is no opportunist.
Give him credit, despite the benefits of being the scion of one of American music’s greatest songwriters, Justin Townes Earle is no opportunist. And while his father now experiments with samples and loops, his son is taking another step out of his shadow by pushing farther into the past, cavorting with the ghosts of the folk tradition on Midnight at the Movies.
So what inspired the song “They Killed John Henry”?
My grandfather, actually. I had two false starts on writing a song to honor my grandfather, this being Jack Earle, my dad’s dad. He was a very large presence in my life, and I always have believed that he was the model of a man. He was always a great storyteller, and that runs in my family. All his brothers and him were incredible storytellers. He stands just as big as the symbols of John Henry and Joe Hill in my head, so I decided to put him up against one of the biggest stories of all time and one of the biggest symbols of America that I’d ever heard of. It was also a chance for me to exercise the Dylan/Woody Guthrie style of rewriting old songs and seeing if you can make yours stand. That’s always a challenge. I use bits and pieces of lyrics a lot. I was basically trying to rewrite two songs–“John Henry” and “Joe Hill.” It was a real interesting kind of process.
Do you see yourself as belonging to that Woody Guthrie/Bob Dylan tradition?
I don’t think I have any right to say I belong to that. I think that’s something that eventually maybe you get inducted into. I’m just experimenting. I hear a lot of music and I love a lot of music, and I’m trying to make a conscious effort to make sure that I’m not making records that keep me from doing what I want to do. I couldn’t blindside anybody with the two records that I’ve put out if they know my collection of work, unless I put out an electronic record, and that’s not going to happen.
At this point, who would you say are your main influences?
Well, to me Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are like staples, like food groups. They are the three food groups of songwriters. That’s what you have to have. Most of the good stuff was influenced by that, and it’s great to see where people take off on it and use it. It’s all really based around that. The singer/songwriter thing is based around Woody Guthrie, because he really was the first. If you do it in any form of tradition, you’re probably touching on Woody heavily.
But I get influenced by a lot of shit. I heard Ben Sollee’s record, and I immediately started putting together songs to make a guitar and cello record. I love music, and I go off on tangents of all the different projects that I want to do. There are several modern songwriters that I think are amazing. Lucinda Williams, for starters. Chris Stapleton, the guy who writes all the songs for The SteelDrivers, is a great songwriter. I’m a massive Springsteen fan and a big Joe Henry fan. There’s also people like Jason Isbell. I tend to gravitate toward people where it’s about the song and the rest comes later. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works on good ol’ Music Row these days.