Justin Townes Earle’s death at the age of 38 on 23rd August was announced on his social media without any confirmation of the cause of death. There has been considerable interest in the mainstream media with speculation that his was a drug-related death, due to his well-publicised struggles with alcohol and chemical dependencies. It will be another tragedy if he is largely remembered for his addictions and early death given the quality of his songwriting and music that will be his true legacy.
Born on January 4th 1982 in Nashville to father Steve Earle and his third wife Carol Ann Hunter. Steve Earle wanted to call his son Townes after his friend and mentor Townes Van Zandt but his wife resisted this due to the negative impact Van Zandt had had on their lives and compromised to allow him to have Townes as his middle name. During Justin Townes Earle’s formative years, Steve Earle was largely an absentee father due to his own addictions and heavy touring schedule. Fortunately, Justin Townes Earle went to live with his father in 1994 after Steve Earle managed to get clean. Sadly drugs entered Justin Townes Earle’s life in his early teens and remained a challenge for the remainder of his life. He has been honest about his additions and had a very realistic view of their dangers, writing on his website “One day I just realized it’s not cool to die young, and it’s even less cool to die after 30,” when he was 32.
After playing in two Nashville bands, he signed with Chicago based Bloodshot records in 2007 having developed his own musical style that mixed folk, blues and country with Woody Guthrie a particular formative influence on his songwriting. He avoided his father’s country-rock sound for something that was more blues and folk-based, while still channelling The Replacements and Kurt Cobain. He had his own blues-based abrasive fingerstyle guitar sound that was influenced by Townes Van Zandt but was more rustic. He was also an excellent performer and showman when he was sober, regaling his audiences with anecdotes and interactive performances with an always excellent supporting band of musicians. His early albums always got good reviews but he moved into the artistic big league with his third record ‘Harlem River Blues’ which included songs about living in Brooklyn and working on the Manhattan subway lines sung as if they were about rural Tennessee. It was a blues album that invoked the spirit of Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan. The title track won The Song Of The Year Award at the 2011 Americana Awards.
He released a further five albums which saw him continuing to hone his songwriting skills bringing an increasing Memphis influence to his sound. On his final album, 2019’s ‘The Saint of Lost Causes’, Earle maintained his broad musical palette while crafting lyrics that commented on the then-current socio-political state of America. This move to a more outward-looking songwriting coincided with a maturing Justin Townes Earle following the birth of his daughter in 2017. In an interview in The Boot he said “My daughter is probably the reason I stopped writing songs that were so inward and started looking out into the world,” he admits. “I had to start worrying about the world because of her. I bought her a 9MM [handgun] the day she was born because I’m frightened like hell for her. … “I have a daughter; I can’t stop caring,” Earle says, with an obvious hint of pragmatic pride. “I have a mother that I take care of. I can’t ever stop caring. What I will stop doing, eventually … it’s what the record says. You push down white trash or poor black people or whoever long enough, we’re going to react. We will react. And you won’t like it. Baby Boomers love to say they stopped the Vietnam War, but they also ruined the stock market. Congrats, guys. Meanwhile, I can’t get a job at McDonald’s because of my criminal record. So if I don’t play music, I sell dope. I’m a criminal, and if I don’t play music, I’d probably be in prison or dead.”
In the same interview, he talked about his relationship with his father, “There are a lot of sons and daughters out there who want nothing to do with their parents. Get over that s–. You think you’d be doing what you’re doing with no influence from your mother or father? But even though it was tough, 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.”
Various friends and colleagues commented on social media on Justin Townes Earle’s passing, including Jason Isbell on Twitter “Had a lot of good times and made a lot of good music with JTE,”. “So sad for his family tonight.” “I’m saddened to hear that we have lost Justin Townes Earle and at such a young age,” lamented Billy Bragg, also on Twitter. “I worked with him last year and found him to be a brilliant songwriter and generous soul. My thoughts go out to his family and friends.”
We will never know what music we have missed due to Justin Townes Earle’s early passing. However, we do know what a talented artist and songwriter he was while he was with us. Hopefully, his body of work will help his daughter get to know her late father as she grows up.