Justin Townes Earle knows how lucky he is to be playing music and making “a ridiculous amount of money.”
It’s been a good run for Earle. He released his third album, “Midnight at the Movies,” (Bloodshot Records - $14.98) in March, earning him a nod for Americana Music’s album and artist of the year. In September, the 27-year-old received an Americana Music Award for Emerging Artist of the Year.
However, just a while back, Earle was addicted to drugs, living on the wrong side of Nashville and eking out a living as a musician. He had a gig with his father, legendary Texas singer/songwriter Steve Earle, but lost the job because he couldn’t stay straight or sober.
When asked about his decision to get clean, Justin said, “It was a struggle, of course. If you have half a brain, you make the decision one day not to die. You’ve got to have something to live for.”
Earle doesn’t believe his journey is special.
“Every junkie’s story is the same,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “There are no unique junkies out there. You wake up in the morning. You’re sick. You shoot dope. You look for a way to find more dope. And you fall asleep at some time.”
The elder Earle, who also had a public struggle with substance abuse, named his son in honor of his long-time friend and mentor, Townes Van Zandt, who died on Jan. 1, 1997. Van Zandt’s battles with the bottle and drugs are common knowledge, costing the Texas songwriter more than just his life.
However, Justin Townes Earle denies feeling pressure to live up to his two names.
“I know them as regular men,” he explained. “They’re great songwriters but they’re not great icons in my eyes. I don’t think they’re greater than they are.”
Earle, who now stands six foot six inches and will celebrate his 28th birthday on Jan. 28, didn’t have much contact with his namesake because, as he says, “I grew up with my mother, and my mother hated Townes.” But, the musician does acknowledge Van Zandt’s genius.
“Townes Van Zandt is the world’s greatest songwriter that ever lived. Period.” he said in a recent performance.
Earle played on his father’s 2009 tribute CD, “Townes.” They did a duet on “Mr. Mud and Mr. Gold,” Van Zandt’s blazing spoken saga about a historic poker game.
Even though “Townes” has received overwhelming critical praise, Earle seemed unfazed about the record.
“It was a day in the studio,” Earle said of the duet. “I’ve been playing that song for years and so has my dad.”
Earle claims he doesn’t have a favorite song of his father’s or Van Zandt’s. He thinks it’s the albums that should be judged as a whole, not by their individual tunes.
“I like “Train A Coming” (1997) from my father and “Delta Mama Blues” (1971) for Townes,” he explained. “They were both people who wrote records to be records. I enjoy the records in full.”
Earle is a talented musician and a crafty songwriter, using only one cover on the new CD – “Can’t Hardly Wait,” by the Replacements.
“If you had parents who were even remotely hip, they had Replacement records in the 1980s,” he said. “My mom was no exception. It seems like that song was on the end of every feel-good movie of the 80s.”
The title cut from the new CD evokes a Times Square of the 1940s – when it was a hangout for creatures of the night.
“I was shooting for the junkies, prostitutes and dirty book store vibe,” he explained.
“I love Buck Owens,” he said. “I’ve listened to Buck Owens a lot.”
“Halfway to Jackson” is a nod to Johnny Cash. The whole track feels like a train coming down the track, beginning softly with some strumming and harmonica licks, then building to a rousing level with a driving drum beat, along with some hooping and hollering.
Then, the song winds down with just a plaintive harmonica fading into the distance. As impressive as the track is, it really wasn’t planned to sound like a passing train.
“I wrote that song when I was 15 and a half,” Earle states. “I had no clue what I was thinking about when I wrote it.”
One of the more interesting cuts on the CD is the ballad “My Mother’s Eyes.”
“It’s a song about a young man’s realization that no matter who he thinks he is, he is his father’s son, and one day he’s going to turn into his mother,” Earle explains. “The song grabs men because we’re all scared of that. Whether we know it or not, it’s going to happen.”
Earle plays about 200 dates a year, including gigs in Europe, usually going it alone, with no road crew.
“I do pretty good,” he says. “I play shows all year round and I make enough money to live in Manhattan. Of course I feel lucky. How could you not?”
This is the first part in “A Songwriter’s Sojourn,”
a series featuring songwriters from Texas - or with close ties to Texas -
who stayed true to their craft,
lived up to their gifts and
left their mark on the world of music.
For more information about Justin Townes Earle and for dates on his touring schedule,
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Earle will be at the Granada Theater in Dallas on Feb. 6, 2010.
Log on to www.granadatheater.com
for more details.
For more information on Steve Earle, log on to:
For more information on Townes Van Zandt, log on to: