The Trials of Justin Townes Earle

The songwriter’s musical roots run deep—sometimes uncomfortably so—but Nashville’s prodigal son has found a sound that’s all his own

Photo: Jim Herrington

Earle at a favorite East Village bar in New York.

On a greasy-hot summer day in New York City, down in the East Village, Justin Townes Earle looked like a man in need of a porch. Gangly and long-limbed, his face dwarfed by an oversize pair of tortoiseshell eyeglasses, the twenty-eight-year-old singer-songwriter was sprawled on a wooden bench outside the 11th Street Bar, lazily smoking a cigarette beneath a neon-green Brooklyn Lager sign, as unhurried and unperturbed as a Southern porch sitter waving idly to passing cars. As a native Tennessean, descended from “Texas farmers and Kentucky moonshiners,” Earle comes by porch sitting as naturally as he comes by country music (his middle name, Townes, pays homage to Townes Van Zandt, while his last name is from his father, the renegade country icon Steve Earle). In fact, since moving to New York from Nashville two years ago, it’s one of the things he misses most about the South: “Sitting down on somebody’s porch and barbecuing,” he told me. “And not what they call barbecuing up here, where you show up and it’s, like, hamburgers.” 

For the moment, nonetheless, Earle seemed content with this urban proxy: a compact rectangle of stone outside his favorite bar, just down the sidewalk from his apartment, in a city where people flip the bird at passing cars rather than wave to them. Wildly content, even. “I’m never leaving this city, ever,” he said, once inside the bar. “It’ll take more than terrorists, high water, boiling oil, to take me off this island.” He loves the way Manhattan’s brash, frantic energy stokes his songwriting. He digs the instant gratification the city supplies: “If I want duck confit at four a.m., I can get duck confit at four a.m. And I like duck confit at four a.m.” It’s a relief, he said, to shoot the breeze about topics other than music and guitars, Nashville’s dominant subjects. As a voracious clothes hound (earlier this year, GQ named Earle one of the “25 most stylish men in the world”), he’s thrilled by the city’s hyperactive fashion sense. And for a man who (barely) survived five drug overdoses before the age of twenty-one, and who confesses a dangerous attraction to guns and unstable women and classic country-lyric bedlam, he seemed relieved to be free of the ghosts and dark landmarks of his former life. He’s a New Yorker now; he’s even learned to use the f-word in a friendly greeting.

That doesn’t mean he’s turned his back on the South. Clear evidence for that can be heard in every song on his third full-length album, Harlem River Blues, on the Bloodshot Records label. The title track’s geographic reference notwithstanding, Harlem River Blues is an unabashed sonic tribute to the South. From a Hank Snow– and Hank Williams–infused rockabilly romp (“Move Over Mama”) to a chicka-chicka train song pulling loads of Jimmie Rodgers influence (“Workin’ for the MTA”) to the Memphis guitar licks that go skittering through “Slippin’ and Slidin’” to the down-home gospel choir and Hammond B-3 organ swirls backing him on the irrepressible title track, Harlem River Blues is a thirty-one-minute road trip through the South’s musical landscape.

That’s by design, said Earle, who classifies his genre as Southern American rather than Americana or, God forbid, alt-country (“It’s either country or it ain’t,” he once told an interviewer). “What I always attempt to do on my records is to cover the South,” he explained, “because we own all popular forms of music. They’re all inherently ours, because we created them all. (Okay, hip-hop, New York’s got that.) But we’ve got string music from the hills of North Carolina and Virginia and eastern Tennessee that moves over to bluegrass in Kentucky, country music in Nashville, blues in the Delta and all over the South, jazz in New Orleans, and like Levon Helm said in The Last Waltz, this all slides to Memphis and becomes rock ’n’ roll. So they’re all ours.

“It’s just all about my roots,” he went on. “And even though I’m living in New York, Truman Capote was able to come up here and remain very Southern, and Tennessee Williams too. My roots are just very, very deep in the South, so [Southern music] is one of those things I’ll always keep doing. There’s just too much of it—you can never learn it all, and you’ll never be able to escape it.”

Looking for Trouble

Justin Townes Earle’s musical roots, however, run far deeper—and are far more inescapable—than mere geography. His mother, Carol-Ann Hunter, was the third wife (out of six) of Steve Earle, and Justin was his first child. The combination of paternal DNA and the Townes Van Zandt tribute embedded in his name might suggest a clear musical pathway, but Justin avoided music during his early years. His father split when he was two, a moment he recalls with painful clarity: “We had this front door with paneled glass, and I remember looking through it and seeing him get into his van, waving at me.” After the divorce, Justin says, his father was a rare presence in his life, and though he did give Justin a guitar when the boy was nine, Justin ignored it. “At that point in my life, I thought music was the reason my family was broken up,” he told me. “So the guitar went into the closet, and went away.”

But three years later, during one of Steve Earle’s epic battles with heroin, Justin moved in with his father. “I moved in because I thought he was going to die,” he said. “He was completely out of his mind. It broke my mom’s heart, but I just thought it was something that needed to be done.” During that time, which he described as “absolute mayhem,” he discovered the band Nirvana, taking a particular shine to the song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” After hearing the song playing over and over again through Justin’s bedroom door, his father ducked into Justin’s room one afternoon to say, “You know that’s a Leadbelly song, right?”

“I was like, ‘No, Kurt Cobain wrote that,’” Justin recalled. “He was like, ‘No, come here,’ and he took me upstairs into his room and pulled out a Leadbelly album and put it on the record player. And right there my world changed. Right there, everything completely spun around. It’s kind of like getting a bomb dropped on you. Something about the tone and the honesty—it was just absolutely honest, heart-ripping, and I loved that about it.”

Jim Herrington

By this time he’d already been experimenting with drugs; add a guitar to that, plus the standard lust and recklessness of the teen years, then multiply it by ten or maybe twenty, and you’ve got Justin Townes Earle’s adolescence. The day after his first public gig, as the opening act for the singer-songwriter Scotty Melton, he abandoned Nashville—and high school, which he’d just started—to bunk with Melton in the hills of eastern Tennessee, near Johnson City, for a couple of years. “All we did was get high, drink beer, chase girls, play music,” Justin said. “We played music all day.” That period, he says, was something like an apprenticeship in old-timey string-band music, which he followed with two years in Chicago, for a blues apprenticeship. With the blues, however, came an introduction to heroin, which landed him back in Nashville, strung out and directionless, making deliveries for a crack dealer with a .45-caliber nickel-plated Taurus pistol tucked into his pants.

Clean and sober himself by this time, Steve Earle gave his son a job in his touring band, as a means of weaning him off the drugs—a moment foreshadowed, somewhat poignantly, in the song “Little Rock ’n’ Roller” from the elder Earle’s Guitar Town album, when he sang: “One of these days when you’re a little older/You can ride the big bus and everything will be all right.” Everything wasn’t all right, however. The road-as-rehab treatment failed, and Justin’s spiraling drug use got him fired from even that job. Only a multiday stint in an intensive-care unit, after suffering respiratory failure from a sleepless fourteen-day heroin-and-cocaine binge, slammed the brakes on Justin’s drug abuse.

Starting Over

With lucidity came a renewal of ambition. Songwriting filled the hours formerly occupied by narcosis. Justin’s debut release, 2008’s The Good Life, was notable for how it sounded (soulfully wise and world-weary, with a punkishly ragged edge) as well as for how it didn’t sound: like his father’s music. “Justin made a conscious decision not to play his dad’s music, just like I did,” says longtime friend Bobby Bare, Jr., who, as the son of country singer Bobby Bare, also had to forge his own musical identity in the shadow of a famous dad. “If Justin and I did what a lot of second-generation kids do, our dads would both come out and kick us in the face. It’s pitiful to make a living off of being someone’s kid.” Justin addressed the topic head-on with the autobiographical song “Mama’s Eyes,” on his breakthrough second album, Midnight at the Movies: “I ain’t foolin’ no one/I am my father’s son,” he sang, before concluding, “But I’ve got my mama’s eyes/her long thin frame and her smile/and I still see wrong from right/’cause I’ve got my mama’s eyes.” The song’s statement was subtle but powerful: Despite the obvious hereditary bent for hard living and virtuoso songwriting, Justin Townes Earle was not a sequel.

“This guy sounds like he could be out of the 1930s, yet he’s so incredibly new and valid right now,” says the clothing designer Billy Reid, who befriended Justin after customizing some suits for him two years ago. When Reid talks about Justin’s talent for “blending new and vintage,” he’s talking about Justin’s wardrobe, but he could just as easily be discussing his music.

“This is an old world,” Justin told me, “and we’re working inside existing forms, with things that have been repeated over and over again.” Such reverence, he admitted, can have its anachronistic hazards: “Like when you see some band,” he said, “and it’s just this kid in a funny hat and baggy carpenter pants with his 1920s shirt on that he tracked down at a thrift store and had his mom buy for him, and he’s singing a song about a plow, and you’re like, ‘You’re from Brooklyn! What do you know about plowing a field?’ The deal is, when you reach into your bag of inspiration, you have to find something you can relate to, something that you know and feel. A lot of other writers in my style of music write about cars all the time. You know what? I don’t know anything about the engine of a car. I write about what I know, and at this point in my life, as a twenty-eight-year-old ex-junkie Tennessean, I know a lot about girls, particularly wild women; I know a lot about dope; I know a lot about guns; and, actually, I know a lot about clothes. I just try to take those things and mix them in.”

There’s also a hot current of pain wired through his songs—not just romantic pain, that cornerstone of country lyrics, but a deeper, more elusive, and more existential hurt. “I’ve always liked to write songs like they’re last rites,” he told me. “You know, like this is my last chance to say this.” The song “Harlem River Blues,” for instance, has a rapturous, tent-revival lilt to it, with a melody that’ll crawl into your ear and camp out for days, but stop dancing and listen closely and you’ll notice that it’s all about suicide: about the difference, as Justin sings, between “tempting and choosing [your] fate.”

When you see me walking up the FDR, singin’ and a-clappin’ my hands,
Tell my mama I love her, tell my father I tried, give my money to my baby to spend.
Lord I’m goin’ uptown, to the Harlem River to drown…

Soon after our interview, that pain or that hereditary bent or perhaps just the grim biochemistry of addiction caught up, again, with Justin Townes Earle. On September 16, after a belligerent performance in Indianapolis and a subsequent altercation with the concert venue’s owners, he was jailed for battery, public intoxication, and resisting arrest. Shortly thereafter, he entered a rehabilitation facility back in Nashville.

“I was doing what I did because I was trying to wipe the memory of an extremely screwed-up youth,” Justin told me about his prior battles with substance abuse. In light of subsequent events, the comments take on a sad new glow: “Once I realized that if I numbed those feelings, that…” Here he paused to gather his thoughts. “Those are very valuable feelings,” he said. “To write songs like ‘Mama’s Eyes,’ that’s what those feelings are good for. And they still hurt and you’re still a little tortured inside, but it’s worth something. Hang onto it. Don’t try to kill it. Don’t try to kill it and try not to torture yourself more.” Clearly, it’s a lesson that Justin Townes Earle, like his father before him, is still struggling to learn.