When you are the firstborn of one of americana’s iconic roots musicians AND given the name of one of the great songwriters of his era, it’s kinda preordained that you will end up in this business, one way or another. Justin Townes Earle – JTE – son of Steve, named after dad’s idol, Townes Van Zandt, has carved himself a piece of americana that was perhaps unlikely given the number of chairs thrown in his path in the shape of addictions in his early years.
Earle was born January 4th,1982 to Steve and his third wife, Carol-Ann Hunter, one of six women dad married in seven marriages (four and six were the same woman). By all accounts, Steve wanted his son to have Townes as his first name, but mum was having none of it, blaming Van Zandt for a lot of the ‘trouble’ in which Steve found himself, so a compromise was reached. Growing up in South Nashville, JTE saw little of his father as he was touring a great deal and also beginning to nurture a serious drug habit that took him into the 90s. Justin began to develop an interest in the music and played with a couple of local bands; rock with the Distributors, and then with the Swindlers, a kind of acoustic bluegrass outfit. By the middle of the 90s, he was living with his father again, who was clean by this time and eventually began playing with Steve’s touring band, the Dukes.
Justin dropped out of school at an exceedingly early age. As he recalls, “My dad asked me when I was 14 years old, he asked me if I was gonna leave school. I wanted to quit, and so I was allowed to quit by the school board with the approval of my parents. They were just happy I was playing music and not doing anything criminal for a little while.” However, he also discovered drugs at an equally early age (he is quoted as saying he started at the age of 12) and he was ultimately fired from the Dukes as his performances began to be affected by the drugs. He was even hospitalised for several days after his fifth overdose at the age of 21.
This event acted as a wake-up call and he focused on getting clean and sober and working on new music. In 2007, ‘Yuma’ was released, an EP of original material that was widely applauded, and shortly after he signed for Bloodshot, the independent label that refuses to be labelled. Debut album, ‘The Good Life’, was subsequently released in March 2008, followed by ‘Midnight at the Movies’ in 2009 and the utterly brilliant ‘Harlem River Blues’ – from which the AMA Song of the Year Award for the title track is taken – in 2010.
Sadly, the unwelcome spectre of drugs appeared again while touring to promote ‘Harlem River Blues’ and a visit to the local jail (after a little spat in a club) and a further stint in rehab followed. In 2012, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now’ was released, which Rolling Stone included in their list of albums of the year, citing “The son of country-rock renegade Steve Earle has grown into a songwriter to rival his dad”. JTE has spoken of possible ‘rivalry’: “Nobody will ever say that I rode my daddy’s coattails. My daddy can’t write like me, he can’t play guitar like me. I can’t write like him, and I don’t want to play guitar like him. I think we’ve done five shows together in 13 years since I started making records. We separated it hard from the beginning, because he wanted me to stand on my own.”
This is fact; while they may share a love of American roots music, they express that love in quite different ways. Justin’s music is more laid back, more unhurried, but always authentic, incorporating a wide range of instruments in the process, including pedal steel, fiddles, horns, organ. He is renowned for keeping production values light, trying to capture as stripped back, live sound as possible.
An unhappy time at Communion Records (a UK label, part-owned by Ben Lovett of Mumford and Sons) followed the end of the deal with Bloodshot, but he moved to American independent Vagrant Records and made two albums as companions, ‘Single Mothers’ and ‘Absent Fathers’. These were released separately in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Another move to the respected independent label New West Records resulted in ‘Kids in the Street’ being released in 2017 and his most recent album, ‘The Saint of Lost Causes’, in 2019. This most recent work has seen a slight shift in the focus of his songwriting. As a result, he says, of becoming a father, he has more reason to think about the state of the world, and he is proud of The Saint of Lost Causes, “because it’s a social commentary” in a kind of Springsteen style.
Clearly, there is more to come, more records, more tours once this dreadful pandemic is over. And more social commentary, in that unique JTE americana style, no doubt.
‘Yuma’ (2007) – EP
‘The Good Life’ (2008)
‘Midnight at the Movies’ (2009)
‘Harlem River Blues’ (2010)
‘Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now’ (2012)
‘Single Mothers’ (2014)
‘Absent Fathers’ (2015)
‘Kids in the Street’ (2017)
‘The Saint of Lost Causes’ (2019)