JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE: PURELY AN ACT OF IMAGINATION
Coming off the success of 2008’s The Good Life, the high-lonesome killer of an album that is Midnight at the Movies ought to efface forever the words “in his own right” from any further consideration of Justin Townes Earle’s recording career. J.T. inherited a double-barreled name from roots-rocker dad Steve and his mentor, the late great Townes Van Zandt, but little else. Tall and courtly like some 1950s Nashville idol, Earle’s brand of C&W insurgency is highlighted by a spooky knack for raising the ghosts of traditional America inside a context deeply colored by our 21st-century blues. He’s had his own tussles with that old devil substance abuse and displays the candor and cheery truculence country fans expect out of anybody named “Earle,” but gives testament below to durable values and a serious sense of fun. Our chat a few hours before New Year’s Eve 2009 finds him emphatic, funny and dealing well with being a Southern boy in the East Village. This interview by Ron Garmon.
I just finished Midnight at the Movies and the title song sounds based on something pretty specific in the way of memory.
Justin Townes Earle: When I was 18 years old, I got obsessed with the Beat Generation. You know—how people like Gregory Corso and others gravitated around Times Square in the ’40s and ’50s. It was kind of just the imagery of dirty movies and peep shows. This record is my Beat album.
Did you ever actually see 42nd Street before the theaters were shut down?
Justin Townes Earle: I never got to see that and I think that’s why it took me so long to process it—because it was purely an act of imagination. This is purely an imagination record.
What does the old-time honk and trad country I used to hear as a kid in the hollows of Appalachia have to say to the flat-busted America of the present moment?
Justin Townes Earle: I think we still speak in a common barebones way. It’s the English language at its most rudimentary, but still gets its point across very well. Americans still aren’t far from being the insanely churchgoing people they were up until the 1950s and there’s still some memory of that. That old-time church music has just been, well, swallowed up.
Someone once described early R&B as ‘God’s music and the devil’s lyrics.’ ‘Shout’ by the Isley Brothers is an old spiritual reappropriated to make people do the Gator on the honky tonk floor. Who are your influences as vocalist?
Justin Townes Earle: That’s a cool question. I learned a lot from watching old tapes of Porter Wagoner. I saw him at the Grand Ole Opry when I was a kid. That’s how I learned to work a microphone around my stature. I try to be like Chet Baker and sing as soft as I can and really use the microphone. He was definitely my favorite. Whenever I think of contemporary vocalists, I always think of him because he’s so great and different and soft and cool.
Listening to the delivery, I thought of Hank Sr., Dave Dudley, even Whispering Bill Anderson—just the kind of inflected simplicity you hear on their old sides.
Justin Townes Earle: I think the important thing is putting it across properly. In my vocals, I go all over the place from, as you say, Hank to fuckin’ Shane MacGowan and back when I want to. The beautiful part of being an artist is you get to have the whole fuckin’ thing.
I like how in your version of ‘John Henry,’ the figure songwriters associate with worker heroism is seen by you defeated and in death.
Justin Townes Earle: I wrote that song for my grandfather. After he passed away, it hit me really hard. I needed a way to pay homage to my grandfather without writing another bullshit teary I-miss-you song because nobody needs another sappy bullshit I-miss-you song. The world has plenty of those. Those were stories he always told—he knew a million old John Henry and Joe Hill stories, and they are always in my head. All these stories about powerful males were there before me in flesh-and-blood in my grandfather.
‘My Mother’s Eyes’ speaks to a few attitudes you don’t share with your father.
Justin Townes Earle: I’ve had the idea for that song for a very long time, but it took me almost ten years to figure out what to do with that idea. It came right down basically to just that I was raised by my mom. I’m asked about Steve Earle constantly. He’s my father and I love him, but it was my momma busted my ass when I was a kid. That was one of the things I wanted to do, for her sake if nothing else.
That’s another longstanding trope in traditional music.
Justin Townes Earle: Woody Guthrie laid the groundwork and Bob Dylan showed us how to pay homage to that. Rarely are there authentic original artists. There are very few of them. Woody was one and we all follow what he did.
Talking of ancestors, what do you think about the talk in some of the reviews incessantly comparing your music with your father’s—even though the two aren’t much alike and you’re well up to the mark in any case?
Justin Townes Earle: Actually, I don’t read reviews and I follow the example of a few before me who did and made asses of themselves over it. I decided I never would. I never felt any need to … Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt are amazing songwriters, but I know the dirt. I was there. All the fans of my father see him as an infallible poetic genius and Townes as being tormented and I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ Sometimes the great songwriter is not the best of men.
All the stories one hears about Townes tend to be about how endearingly silly he could be.
Justin Townes Earle: Yes. He was a very sweet man when he was his mother’s child and in his natural state.
Talking of eminent forebears, how did you come to cover the Replacements’ awesome ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’?
Justin Townes Earle: If you were a kid mid-to-late ’80s and early ’90s and you knew hip people—and my mother was no exception—you had access to Replacements records. A lotta people say they hate all the horns and strings, but I fuckin’ love ’em! Whenever that song comes on the air, it’s like when ‘Born to Run’ comes on. It’s one of those songs that make you feel safe.
I understand you have some tart thoughts on American Idol …
Justin Townes Earle: It’s just another opiate for the masses. It’s something else to get all the common people to shut the fuck up. We’re just lucky we don’t have to worry about them hitting us with their cars when American Idol is on.
I agree with you that everyone needs a vice. What’s yours?
Justin Townes Earle: Well, I’m a hippie and I smoke a lotta reefer. I’m really bad about buying clothes and spending all my excess money on dope. I have more money now than I would have during my previous $200-a-day habit. I can get a nice pair of shoes or a nice shirt. I’m now a total girl when it comes to shopping.
Well, now ya know why junkies all dress like shit!
Justin Townes Earle: Exactly! Now it’s rock like a god and shop like a girl!
What are you reading now?
Justin Townes Earle: I’m in kinda an in-between phase right now, but just started Black Boy and I’m only a few chapters in. Usually I read a lot because when nothing goes in, nothing comes out. But I’m writing a record right now so I’m more focused about getting it out than putting it in.
What can you tell us about it?
Justin Townes Earle: Well, that I’m a verse away from being finished with it. I’ve always shot for keeping my feet planted in traditional forms of music, but you never want to make the same record twice, so this one will be more pre-war blues and gospel oriented in the feel. Those will be the accents we shoot for, instead of country and western.
Higher and more lonesome.
Justin Townes Earle: Yeah. It’s gonna be a lonesome record and it’s gonna be dark.
Has the old America vanished yet?
Justin Townes Earle: No. You see examples every day. But it is slowly going away. In Nashville, we had the old stately neighborhood called Belle Meade, with all the Rolls-Royces and Bentleys parked outside the houses. Now it’s all Hummers. That’s one sign of the death of the old-time America. But as long as families gather around their fried okra and fried chicken, it will always be there; old America will stay around.
Is work a replacement for addiction in the artist?
Justin Townes Earle: Definitely. I don’t think even my father would deny that. I think I will always be runnin’ from somethin’, only I don’t run so hard these days.
JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE WITH JOE PUG AND THE HI-HOS ON THUR., FEB. 11, AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8 PM / $10-$12 / 18+. ATTHEECHO.COM. JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE’S MIDNIGHT AT THE MOVIES IS OUT NOW ON BLOODSHOT. VISIT JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE AT JUSTINTOWNESEARLE.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/JUSTINTOWNESEARLE.