One Foot Then and One Foot Now: Justin Townes Earle, June 30 at Huckleberry’s Print
Music - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 25 June 2008 02:25

Justin Townes EarleJustin Townes Earle's debut EP, last year's Yuma, was a thrown-together affair, but it was a conscious component of his development.

"The whole point of Yuma was for me to go back to what I felt was the roots of being a singer/songwriter, which was back to Woody Guthrie ... an acoustic guitar and the song," Earle said in a phone interview last week. "That's something I felt like I needed to do to make the musical progression work properly. I'm very deliberate about what I do musically.

"One of the biggest problems that we have today music-wise is that we have people out here writing songs who have no fucking clue who Woody Guthrie is," he continued. "They know the name, but they couldn't tell you a Woody Guthrie song other than ‘This Land Is Your Land' to save their lives. ... Their musical influences go back to the fucking Rolling Stones. ... Starting from the very beginning is very important, and showing that you can stand on your own is very important for a singer/songwriter."

For the 26-year-old Earle - who released his first full-length, The Good Life, earlier this year and will perform a Daytrotter show at Huckleberry's on Monday - studying the roots is an issue of "trying to have one foot then and one foot now. ... My music has to have its roots buried in the past and definitely have a foot forward, to keep up with the times."

The music is firmly in the past - twangy and irony-free old-school country - and the major thing that's contemporary is the singer/songwriter himself, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and the carrier of an intimidating musical legacy.

Named after one icon (Townes Van Zandt) and the son of another (Steve Earle), Justin Townes Earle has an honest and true singing voice, and his arrangements are clean and right. The emotional but unsentimental "Turn Out My Lights" recalls another great singer and arranger: Lyle Lovett.

Earle's respect for dusty songs started when he was young, listening to grunge bands. From Nirvana's Unplugged show, Earle was struck by "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" - which of course was written by Leadbelly. The realization: "Music did not start with Nirvana."

It's a self-evident point, but not many people - let alone teenagers - follow the music back to its origins. On that journey, Earle enlisted the help of his father.

"He was really good about helping me figure out where the bodies were buried," Earle said. "He knew what records all those songs were on, and he also knew how to play all the older songs."

Justin Townes EarleGiven the weight of his baggage, neither Earle nor his music seems burdened. He said that it's pointless to attempt to live up to the reputations his name carries: "There's too many people out there who don't have shit to do with Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle who try too much to be like Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt," he said. "People who've never known 'em, never met 'em, and have spent their whole lives as a mimic act. ... It's nothing to try to live up to. Especially Townes. Go climb Mount Everest first. You have a better chance of surviving."

Earle himself barely made it this far. He overdosed five times, he said, but has been clean for nearly four years.

His father, who had his own struggles with drugs, tried to help by making him part of his road band in his late teens. "I was kind of like a little street-urchin shit," the younger Earle said. "He gave me the option to come out on the road for a little while and get away from everything. ... It came with its own problems. If you want to keep somebody off dope, the road's not the place to do it." Earle eventually got himself fired.

The Good Life is bookended by songs Earle wrote when he was using, and the newer songs were written to complement the old ones. "I wasn't as consistent as I am now. I don't throw much away now," he said. "Those are just the songs that made it out of the weeds.

"It's more focused than it was," he added about his songwriting. "I can write story songs, which I was never able to do because I couldn't focus long enough to keep the fucking theme straight in my head. ... It wasn't me; it was dope that was keeping it from coming along."

That storytelling skill is evident on "Lone Pine Hill," grim and gripping like the Drive-By Truckers sent back through a time machine.

But there's a hope and a warmth in The Good Life that's surprising given its creator's past. And while most addicts have to wrestle with temptation, Earle said that at least for the time being, he isn't haunted by drugs. "Luckily something has just kind of turned that switch off for me right now," he said. "I'm always delighted with the fact that I wake up and I know exactly where I am, and my money's accounted for."

 

Justin Townes Earle will perform on Monday, June 30, at Huckleberry's Pizza Parlor in Rock Island. The show also features David Vandervelde and begins at 8 p.m. Advance tickets are $8 and can be reserved by e-mailing ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ); at the door, the price is $10.

 

For more information on Earle, visit (http://www.myspace.com/justintownesearle).