COMING CLEAN Justin Townes Earle

Following
a high profile incident and a subsequent stint in rehab, the acclaimed young
songwriter takes stock of who he is and where he came from.

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

Like many people who come from a broken home and grow up poor
in a tough part of town, Justin Townes Earle has had a difficult time
overcoming his troubled childhood. But unlike most people, Earle, 28, has had
to wrestle with his demons in public, both because he’s the son of Steve Earle
as well as an incredibly talented singer-songwriter in his own right. His
latest album, Harlem River Blues (Bloodshot), adds soul, gospel and Springsteen-style ballads to the country and
rockabilly that make up the core of his sound. It’s his best album to date.

 

But what should have been a triumphant fall tour celebrating
its release instead became another difficult chapter in his life. Earle had to
cancel a month of dates to enter rehab, a stint that was precipitated by his Sept.
16 arrest
after a fight with a club owner and his daughter in Indianapolis. He was charged with battery,
resisting arrest and public intoxication.

 

[EDITOR’S NOTE/UPDATE,
Nov. 17:
Earle’s publicist contacted Blurt regarding online accounts of the
incident, stating that many of them “misrepresented the situation,” although without elaboration. We should note that prior to our publication of this story yesterday we
had contacted the publicist in order to fact-check some of the questions
surrounding Earle’s rehab and were advised that Earle “is not commenting
on specific questions related to his stint in rehab,” which was fair enough; we
respect his right to privacy in that regard. 
Indeed, in the days following the Indianapolis
arrest, online media outlets covered the story with occasionally intrusive,
tabloid-like detail, such as these unflattering accounts at
SavingCountryMusic.com and My Old Kentucky Blog. Others, including American
Songwriter
 
and CMT.com, took a more
measured journalistic approach and updated their sites only as additional facts were verified. On September 21 Earle issued a statement that read, “Unfortunately,
reports surfacing online about the incident in Indianapolis are not accurate,” says Earle.
“I have been advised by counsel that I should not comment on a pending criminal
matter, but suffice to say that I am looking forward to having my day in court.
I would also like to say that I oppose violence against women in any form.”]

 

On Sept. 22 the following post appeared at Earle’s official
website
and was picked up by the media, including the Associated Press:

 

“Justin Townes Earle
has decided to suspend the remaining dates on his tour and enter a rehabilitation
facility. Earle is strongly committed to confronting his on-going struggle with
addiction and thanks his family, friends and fans for their continued support
through this difficult time.”

 

It’s not the first time Earle has sought treatment. Some
time ago he was working as a member of his father’s touring band The Dukes, but
eventually his drug habit became so severe he was forced to come off the road
in order to address his problem. In the process he reexamined his priorities
and redirected his energies into songwriting, and by 2007 his solo career was
in full swing with the release of Yuma, on
Bloodshot.

 

Back in the present, however, the good news is that Earle
has successfully completed this most recent round of rehab and, according to a
post at his website
about a month ago, has rescheduled his fall tour, to
commence Nov. 26 in Nashville.
Upon learning the news, a slew of fans left supportive comments for Earle,
proof that there among the music community there had been a lot of genuine
concern for his welfare. (You can view the list of rescheduled tour dates, along
with those fan comments, at the above link.)

 

We talked with Earle recently as he was putting his life
back together and preparing to get back on the road.

 

***

 

BLURT: How
are you feeling after your stint in rehab?

EARLE: I feel great. It was a little hairy to begin with,
but I definitely feel good now. It usually takes only a few weeks to get the
stuff out of your system.

 

Did
watching your father make you feel like drugs were part of the creative
process?

I don’t think it has anything to do with the creative
process. It has to do with genetics. There’s just something wrong with me. The
abuse I put my body through never once helped me write a song. Luckily, I
haven’t done any permanent damage to my brain. Often, drugs destroy your
creative process.

 

At one
time, did you believe that drugs were part of being a musician?

My heaviest period of abuse was my teen years through my
early 20s. Back then I had some idea that it was part of the creative process –
that you had to be tortured and fucked up in order to write and be
creative.  But I’m glad I was able to put
that lie to rest in my own head. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to get clean when
I need to.

 

You
added a lot to your sound on Harlem River
Blues
. What inspired you?

With each record, I try to add a little bit more. Well, sometimes
I add more and sometimes I peel a little more back. It’s funny coming from the
South. Southern people are responsible for creating all forms of American
music. I find it interesting going through and creating each different level of
[that music]. For this album, I was leaning toward Muscle Shoals and Memphis, but also the hills of North Carolina and different forms of gospel
music. I do a lot of research and get myself stuck in one form of music for a
period of time. My records are very much case studies for that research. This
time, I was listening to a lot of Staples Singers and Carter Family.

 

When
you conduct research, do you travel to different places or do you just immerse
yourself in a certain kind of music?

I’ve done a lot of the traveling research already. I lived
in the hills of east Tennessee
for several years when I was younger. It was one of the first places I lived on
my own. A very mystical kind of people live in the hills. They’re a strange
lot. They’re very beautiful people, but they have wild ideas when it comes to
religion. Johnson City
is where snake handling was invented.

       I also spent a
lot of time in Muscle Shoals and the Delta. You get the same thing there, just
without the snakes. They’re dirt poor people. All they have is religion. They
have the church and they have music and that’s what they live for. I spent a
lot of time in those places and it helped me gather information, which I put in
a locker until it was time to use it.

 

At the
same time, the album has a more modern sound that your previous ones.

It has always been my goal to keep two feet in the past and
one foot in the present. The mistakes people make when they try to fuse the
past with current music is that they get too much of the current sound going on
in the mix. I tend to lean a little toward the past, but you have to advance it
otherwise you’re just mimicking. I could make a record that sounds just like Woody
Guthrie, but where would the art be in that?

 

You’ve
always been interested in writing songs that sound simple and old-fashioned. I’d
imagine that’s a lot harder to do than it seems. How do you do it?

I listen to people like Woody Guthrie and even Gram Parsons
and Bruce Springsteen. When Bob Dylan wrote songs, he tried to put as many
words as he could into a phrase. He’d just cram ‘em in there and make it come
out right. I tend to go for the opposite and put as few words as I can into a
phrase. I like to leave a lot of room for imagination for people to paint your
own girl.

 

You
didn’t live with your dad growing up. How did you discover old-time country and
rock music if not through him?

Like most kids of my age, I was a big Nirvana fan. It was
the Unplugged record, where Kurt did
a cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” which is a Leadbelly song. When the
record came out, I thought it was a song Kurt had written. It came to my
attention it was this cat named Leadbelly, so I bought my first Leadbelly
record. My whole world changed at that moment. I was 13.

 

How did
your dad’s music influence you?

When I was a kid, my dad was doing Copperhead Road and The Hard Way. He made one record
that was really a rockabilly record and that’s Guitar Town.
Exit 0 started advancing him toward
more of a hard rock sound. Around the time I discovered Leadbelly, my dad made Train A Comin’, which is when he made
his first run at traditional-sounding music. It was a major influence. At that
point, I was living with him. I lived with him for the last year he was using
drugs and about a year after that. It’s still my favorite of my dad’s records.
I have copies of all his records somewhere, but Train A Comin’ and the bluegrass one with Del McCoury [The Mountain] are the only two I have on
my iPod.

 

Did you
feel a lot of pressure to live up to being Steve Earle’s son and being named
after Townes Van Zandt?

I never felt that pressure. I paid attention to the ones
that had come before me – the sons and daughters – and I watched the disaster
and downfall of their careers. It seems the straw that broke the camel’s back
was that they’d constantly feel they had something to live up to. I have two
last names that are insurmountable hills to climb. If you think you’re going to
write songs like Steve Earle, you’ve got another fuckin’ think coming. If you
think you’re going to write songs like Townes Van Zandt you definitely have another fuckin’ think
coming.

       I started out
with the plan to be my own man and not pay attention to what everyone else
said. But these aren’t God-like figures to me. I’ve seen these people throw up
on themselves. They’re average people to me who happen to be able to write
amazing songs. With most things in their lives other than writing songs they
were genuine fuckups. There’s really not much to aspire to. I was looking for
the whole package, not to be what they were. Yet for all of my efforts, I
managed to be just that.

 

 Do you ever worry that all the stories about
your personal life will overshadow your music?

I write my songs the way I live my life. The person I have
the hardest time being honest with is myself. I have no problem being open and
honest and I tend to write same way. My songs aren’t autobiographical, but I
don’t speak about anything I don’t know about. At least I try not to. I don’t
have any worries about it overshadowing [my songs]. I think that’s why people
have grasped a hold of my music so fast is that they’re able to feel a common
hurt, a common joy and a common bond in the music. It’s not necessarily
speaking for them, but I leave them room to, as I said, paint your own girl.

 

[Photo Credit: Joshua Black Wilkins]

 

Earles’s
rescheduled fall tour dates begin on Nov. 26 in Nashville and run through Dec. 19 in D.C.
Full itinerary can be viewed at Earle’s MySpace page.

 


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