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A Tribute To Justin Townes Earle: 'The Talent That He Possessed Was Almost Inconceivable'

25 August 2020 | 10:23 am | Steve Bell

"I saw him play probably 20 times over the next decade or so - all over Australia and even overseas - and the excitement of bearing witness to this genuine and generous talent never abated."

Earle performing in Australia, Sep 2019. Pic by Adrian Thomson

Earle performing in Australia, Sep 2019. Pic by Adrian Thomson

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The music world this week lost a massive talent far too early when it was announced that Americana singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle had passed away from undisclosed causes at the age of just 38.

He was the son of country music mainstay Steve Earle, and named for his father’s friend and mentor Townes Van Zandt, and this rich pedigree flowing through his veins was wrought clear by both his obvious musical acumen plus the way he was so defiantly determined to forge his own path and do things his own way.

Earle leaves behind eight beautiful albums - the most latest being 2019’s The Saint Of Lost Causes - and a tragically young family (he and wife Jenn Marie only welcomed daughter Etta St. James into the world in 2017), but also the indelible marks he made on the lives of countless people whose paths he crossed along his too-short but action-packed journey.

And the repercussions of this great loss are being felt in this part of the world as acutely as anywhere on the globe, given that the talented Nashville-bred artist considered Australia to be virtually a home away from home (“obviously it’s a lot easier to become very well-known in Australia, but I couldn’t ask for a better place to be my best market,” he told The Music in 2015) and had returned to these shores on a regular basis since his inaugural foray in late-2008.

This writer was present at the very beginning of Earle’s blossoming love affair with Australia, having been asked by tour promoters Love Police - who took a gamble on the then-relative unknown and would go on to partner him on each of his subsequent Aussie tours - to pick him up from Brisbane International Airport on the Friday morning he arrived in the country and basically look after him for a couple of days as he acclimatised from his long trip, prior to his first gig at small Fortitude Valley venue The Troubadour (now Black Bear Lodge) on the Sunday night.

The young singer’s fascination with Australia was overt from the get-go, and countless questions about our culture and lifestyle would be peppered in-between his endless and endearingly vigorous treatises on any topic under the sun. A genuinely fun guy to be around, he was charismatic and opinionated and incredibly open about his own past, completely willing to steer conversation towards the many trials and tribulations he’d faced, and the addictions he’d battled since his early teens.

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Such was our easy rapport - built largely upon a swathe of bands we both loved, plus his endless cache of tales about being on the road with said bands - that I was completely unprepared for what was to transpire when Sunday night finally rolled around and he took the stage, making it abundantly apparent from the outset that I’d been blithely and obliviously in the presence of musical greatness for the past 48 hours.

The impact of his immaculately authentic songwriting and consummate performance skills was immediate and invigorating, and when he burst into a stripped-back but hauntingly beautiful cover of The Replacements’ Can’t Hardly Wait - one of my fave songs, a great version of which followed on Justin’s subsequent album Midnight At The Movies (2009) - a friend of mine told me that I’d been grinning so hard she thought my face was going to split in two.

I saw him play probably 20 times over the next decade or so - all over Australia and even overseas - and the excitement of bearing witness to this genuine and generous talent never abated. Plus as the size of the rooms he played on each Aussie tour increased incrementally to reflect his growing stature he remained as humble as ever, never seeming to take his burgeoning success too seriously and preferring to focus on the music he loved.

Chris O’Hearn was another person tapped by Love Police to help out on Earle’s inaugural Australian tour, the music publicist eventually working on all dozen of the singer’s trip’s Down Under (as well as some album releases). Along the way the pair forged a strong bond, based on mutual respect and a shared love of roots music.

“Over that time we connected pretty strongly,” O’Hearn reflects. “We had our moments, there’s no doubt about it, but the times when Justin came down here by and large he was a really good soul. He was very kind to me, and he always said thank you. Every time we’d catch up at the start of a tour for the first time - whether at a hotel or backstage or doing promo - he’d always bring it in and give me a hug, and ask how I was doing and how the kids were.

“He was a considerate person, and for the most part - because there were some times when he drove me crazy - he was a really good person to work with. And I think the fact that he came back to Australia so many times speaks volumes.

“What was obvious from the very beginning was that this was a guy who was not living in his father’s shadow. He didn’t have to come out and say it, but you just knew it. He wanted to pave his own path, and he wanted to lay those bricks - rightly or wrongly - in the way that he saw fit and the way that he thought it should have been.

“And I admired that, because it would have been very easy for Justin in the early stage of his career - around that first album [2008’s The Good Life] and EP [Yuma (2007)] - when it would have been very easy to talk up his father and milk those connections. There were references to it in interviews, but he’d never use it as a calling card. And I really admired the fact that he wanted to stand out from the crowd and do things on his own terms.”

The Americana genre with which Earle is usually synonymous is a large and often nebulous catch-all, but Earle was equally at home mining sounds and emotions from the soul, blues, folk and even rock’n’roll realms as he was from the country music at Americana’s heart. More than that it was the way he so effortlessly brought a modern spin to those old-timey foundations that made his music so widely accessible.

“I remember taking friends to shows,” O’Hearn recalls, “people who had zero clue about Americana music or any country music - they used to call it ‘country and western’, which drove me nuts! But they didn’t see a country act in Justin, they saw a guy onstage who knew his craft and knew his songs and knew how to deliver those songs in a way that made you feel sitting in the audience like you’re the only person there, in the way that Bruce Springsteen does.

“And you kind of get locked in this zone where you think that you’re the only person in the room and that is a gift - an absolute gift - that not many artists possess, but Justin Townes Earle, in my humble opinion, was one of those who could do it. He’d take you to a place night in, night out that you wanted to go to, because that’s why you were there.

“And he knew that, because that was his job. He rolled up the sleeves, put the guitar on and went to work. There was a lot of fun along the way. But seeing Justin playing live for me - and I saw him so many times over the years - not every artist has a great night every night, but what I will say about Justin is that every time he walked out onto a stage he was doing the best he could at that point.”

Melbourne singer-songwriter Henry Wagons is another Australian who forged a long and enduring friendship with Earle. Having been main support for his American peer’s second tour Down Under in 2009, Wagons - these days a respected Double J radio host as well as helming the weekly Delivered, Live online showcases during the pandemic lockdowns - went on to share stages with Earle on many occasions, both at home and abroad.

"I feel like Justin was a lynchpin to a whole lot of people who lifted their game because of him,” he offers sadly. “He came out kinda rippin’ at his guitar and it inspired a whole generation of songwriters to rip at that clawhammer finger-pickin’ style and not be timid when you’re writing country songs.

“He added that Replacements kinda snowball - that relentless drive and that punk element - to country and modern country songwriting, it was fucking great. He was an important figure for everyone, it was just crazy. I feel like he really impacted Australia and a lot of songwriters here.

“And he took people under his wing too. What he did for me in the US was remarkable - I got to tour with him over there and he wrote quotes for my PR. If it wasn’t for him and his endorsement I wouldn’t have anything going in North America to this day: I’m no fucking Bon Jovi, but I’ve got something going!

“I’m very thankful to have known him on a number of levels - both personal and artistic and career levels - let alone just having him tell me his stories, which were pretty cool to just sit and listen to too.”

Wagons was also caught in the spell of Earle’s natural showmanship and stagecraft, his timeless songs offset in the live realm by a peerless charm and relatability.

“He was incredible, absolutely incredible,” the singer smiles. “He could completely hold court, just one man and his acoustic. I actually preferred him playing solo, rather than with a band. I remember I first saw him when I first toured with him and we were both playing a Wave Rock festival over in WA, and I remember first hearing him onstage and presuming that he had both a bass player and another guitarist with him, and then I walked up closer to the stage and it was just him and his knuckles!

“And people presume he’s doing an Ed Sheeran or some loop pedal stuff but it’s all coming from his fingers, and that was extraordinary. Plus he was a great raconteur - he’d always tell stories and he was always quite open onstage and quite honest. He was a great, great showman.”

Wagons also remembers being enthralled by the diversity of people drawn into Earle’s orbit, the crowds at his shows wonderfully diverse and eclectic.

“The breadth of fans at his gigs was incredible,” he continues. “Justin would attract people like 70- and 80-year-olds who loved that classic throwback country songwriting - that dusty 78s-era gramophone country - but then you’d have rockabilly kids in their 20s and punk kids, people who love The Replacements. He had that extraordinary breadth of reach - everybody loved him.

“Justin was such a rollercoaster ride of confidence and fragility - he was the extreme of every adjective you can imagine - and people could relate to his journey and his ride. People followed him and they related to him on his ups and his down and his variation from tour to tour in his states of mind, and that made him approachable and incredibly easy to follow and kind of befriend.

“He was an incredible figure to track and take into your life - people went on a ride with him. And he was interesting - he was always incredibly interesting and a songwriting genius - so you couldn’t really ignore him, and that’s really rare. He had a force of personality that’s really rare in the music industry these days.

“He brought a whole lot of rock’n’roll to Americana, he was a real rock star - and sadly you can’t help but feel that he had so many great songs left in him, that his best work was still to come.”

O’Hearn also rues the inherent waste of potential that is part and parcel of Earle’s untimely passing.

“The thing that makes me saddest about it - apart from the obvious loss - is just the talent that Justin had, it was so immense but in many respects it didn’t reach it’s peak, and that’s terribly sad. For all of Justin’s faults and failings - and you knew him well, he had them, let’s be frank - he was a genuine person, even if he was like a riddle wrapped up in an enigma.

“He thought he knew everything about everything, and when he didn’t he made a bloody good show of making believe like he did know what he was talking about!

"But some might argue that his stature had reached as high as it was ever going to reach, but I disagree with that completely. Don’t forget that when he came out here in 2011 the guy behind him playing guitar was Jason Isbell. Now Jason Isbell is selling out six or seven Ryman Auditoriums a year in Nashville, and I just don’t think that Justin has ever reached his peak.

It had just never really come to fruition for him, and he never seemed to really recognise his potential.”

For the publicist, one moment the pair shared backstage at a Sydney show best sums up Earle’s easygoing charisma and confidence.

“I remember one show at The Basement and he was sitting backstage,” O’Hearn recalls, “and he used to watch old baseball games on his iPad before a show - that was his thing, you’d never imagine someone like Justin being such an avid baseball fan - and I sat down with him and had a bit of a chat.

“He was getting ready to go on and the opening act had just finished, and as I went to leave to go out the front to watch his set in the crowd I remember saying to him, ‘So what’s the show going to be like tonight?’, and he looked at me with that grin of his - you know that grin he had - and simply said, “Fuckin’ killer’ and walked off onstage: it was so perfect!

“And it was fuckin’ killer, time in and time out. He was a guy who gave a lot onstage, and the talent that Justin possessed was almost inconceivable.

“It’s a big loss to so many people in the Australian music industry. He loved coming here, he used to say it in interviews all the time - it’s well-documented - and it would arise in conversations that I would have with him, and I assume that [Earle’s Australian tour promoter] Brian Taranto - BT from Love Police - would have had with him as well.

“He loved coming back here, and in turn I think the music fans of Australia embraced him as much as he embraced us. That was a very strong connection that he had and I think there will be a lot of Australian fans in coming days who are very shocked and saddened about the loss of such a great talent at the age of 38. It’s just too young.”

We’ll leave this memorial of a gifted musician and a lovely - albeit troubled - soul gone too soon with something he said to me back in 2015 during an interview about his then-new album Absent Fathers and his impending shows at Bluesfest, specifically discussing how he blurred autobiography and fiction during the songwriting process.

“Yeah, I’ve got to feel where the song is – feel the time and place – but it’s about 50/50. The thing is that I don’t feel anything different than you do – when it comes to intensity, maybe yes – but we all as humans feel the range of emotions and things like that, the same range of feelings whether it’s hurt or happiness and all of the stuff.

“I try to stick to that human aspect of it, and I think that’s where my fans are able to get in with it, because I’m not presenting myself as any more than they are. I think that’s very important too – there’s nothing super-human about me, I’ve fucked up more, if not just as much as, your average human. I think that’s very important too, that you remind your fans – and remind yourself – that you are just human, period. Nothing more and nothing less.

“And with the parental thing, I don’t think there’s anybody who wasn’t fucked up somewhat by their parents; no parent is perfect, just like no human is perfect. There’s definite sympathies as well as scoldings in my songs, and there’s definitely this progression of growing up through the content of my songs – it’s very important growing with your crowd and just making sure that you’re just staying as human as you possibly can. There’s nothing intrinsically valuable about what I do, period – life would go on without me.”

Life will indeed go on without him, but it will never be quite the same. RIP Justin Townes Earle.