The Things Justin Townes Earle Hates

12 March 2012 | 9:20 am | Samson McDougall

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Justin Townes Earle plays it down but, whether he felt it or not, his musical pedigree (son of Steve Earle, stepson of Allison Moorer and named after famed country musician Townes Van Zandt) placed a huge weight of expectation on his musical development. His rocky road is well documented, but what's unusual in his story is that from the cinders of heroin addiction he stands as a man, now 30 years old, who has emerged from the shadows of his lineage to a reputation as one of the strongest country voices of his generation. Set to release his fifth album Nothing's Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me. Now this month, Earle is hitting Australian roads for a tour in April and, as was duly pointed out by his manager, he's received equal billing for Byron Bay's Bluefest with his father.
 “I was a little freaked out when I first started doing it,” he says of his first forays into writing songs, “but I really didn't spend a lot of time around my father and his friends.”

This was to change dramatically when at a young age he was recruited by his father to tour with his band The Dukes, but, at least initially, he was shielded from the spotlight. “I was a mama's boy and I lived with my mama so I wasn't as intimidated as a lot of my friends, who actually grew up going to the industry parties and hanging around with musicians,” he continues. “I was a little more cavalier because I was a little more ignorant I guess. I pretty much started writing songs and within a few weeks of writing my first songs I was already performing live, and pushing things as far and as hard and as fast as I could. My dad told me, 'If you wanna be good, don't worry about sittin' around, just go out and play shows and you'll get better and you'll become a better writer'. So that's what I did, I just played and played and played and did all the shows I could.”

The initial spark came via writing poetry and short stories as a youngster. Encouraged by a teacher who saw a glimpse of promise, Earle entered and won a few “little stupid county writing contests” but it wasn't until his adolescence that he began dabbling with songs. “I found [songwriting] an interesting style of writing because you have to leave a certain amount of room and you have to not say a certain amount of things in order for a song to be good,” he says. “You don't have page after page to say it, you've gotta get it in there and you've gotta get it in in the most condensed form that you can. It's very challenging.”

Earle's songs are personal affairs, close to himself. Often penned in the first person perspective, they are songs about love, loss, family and life on the road – typical country fodder. Mama's Eyes from 2009 album Midnight At The Movies directly addresses his at-times tumultuous relationship with his father (“_I am my father's son/I've never known when to shut up/But I ain't foolin' no one/I am my father's son”_); new number Won't Be The Last Time appears to tackle addiction-associated regret. His subject matter never strays too far from his story's central character – himself. “It does expose me somewhat,” he says about his writing approach, “but the things that are in my songs, I'm addressing things that people already know about me and I'm just clearing up the hearsay.” 

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A move from Nashville to New York City has allowed Earle the luxury of anonymity. There was a risk associated with the move in that the country 'muse' may be less apparent in the big city. For Earle it was all about taking a breath and gaining perspective. “It hasn't hurt me in any way,” he says. “I definitely thought living in the big city might change me as a musician but all it did was inform me more. [Now] I have a broader idea of human nature, which is what a lot of my writing is based on. In New York you have a lot of human contact… I love everything about it, it's so inspiring. If anything it made me wanna move too fast, I had to kinda slow myself down. 
“I'm kind of 'bah, humbug' about going to see shows. Especially in Nashville, a lot of bands that I'd like to see, I don't get to listen to them because people just talk. In a small club people are just poking at me all the time going 'Hey! What are you doin' here?' Nashville people drive me crazy; I go out a lot more in New York 'cause nobody gives a fuck who I am. Nobody cares in New York.”

Writing from experience opens Earle's material up to a broad audience. We'll get a good gauge of this when he tours here in April as he'll be playing to very different audiences at festivals such as Bluesfest and Boogie, and in clubs ranging from inner-city venues to country halls. Having seen him perform in a variety of settings over the years and witnessing vastly dissimilar audience demographics won over, I ask him whether he ever takes stock on stage and wonders how the hell these people found him? “I've done that several times,” he says. “Especially out here in the States, I get the traditional country fan sometimes – not many of 'em these days but y'know, they'll be there. But y'know, I remember this one guy with a big handlebar moustache and a giant cowboy hat standing next to this little girl with cut off shorts, a tattoo across her chest and a ring through her nose. My shows have definitely gotten more on the young side every year but it's a pretty wild mix… I do ask myself all the time. I think something bad's gonna happen one day 'cause maybe they're all gonna realise they're all really different and hate each other at one of my shows.”

It could be seen that he's bringing people together through his music? This is a concept Earle embraces wholeheartedly. “I think that it's a very important thing,” he continues. “I made a decision through watching my father's career that I would not include political statement in my music. Just because somebody votes differently doesn't mean they don't have a right to come out and listen to music and have a good time. My father, without question, alienates a certain part of the population.”

Despite their past conflicts, Earle and his father are on much better terms these days. As they both appear on the same Bluesfest bill this year, it seemed logical to ask what are the chances of some kind of father/son duo? “It probably will [happen] if we have the time,” he says. “Unfortunately in this business what we always run into is that we don't have any time to do the things we wanna do – we just gotta do what we gotta do. Hopefully I'll be able to catch his set. I haven't seen my father's show in… It's been two years since I've seen him perform because of touring and not having the time.”

The father and son appeared together in (the incredibly good) HBO TV series Treme season one. There's a coffee-shop scene in which the Earles share a table with John Goodman and you can almost see the younger Earle's cup shaking with terror. Steve had already acted in HBO smash The Wire – the two shows share the same creators – so for father what may have been just another day at the office, was for son a harrowing experience. “It was absolutely terrifying,” he laughs. “One of the first scenes I was in was the coffee shop scene with John Goodman, it was horrifying. [Acting]'s something that I'm open to but it's not something that I'm trying to do. I got enough shit goin' on. Acting's a pain in the ass! You're on set all day, you do the same shit over and over. I don't know if I have the patience for that shit. Those people are crazy.”