JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE – ” The Albums ” The Early Years

Posted: March 26, 2023 in MUSIC

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As the son of Steve Earle, Justin Townes Earle carried an enormous weight of expectation. Would he match his father’s artistry? Or would he follow his father’s darker impulses and simply self-destruct?, The answers started coming with the six-song “Yuma” (2007), self-released when Justin was 25 years old, and followed by “The Good Life” the next year, which staked out the middle ground between folk and country. He wrote with a deep love for 20th-century Americana and clearly didn’t want to sound anything like his father. He was just going to be himself, but with the albums’ mix of periods and styles, it was too early to know what that would mean.

‘Lone Pine Hill,’ from Justin’s first full length album, ‘The Good Life’ was released 15 years ago this week, ‘Lone Pine Hill’ is a haunting Civil War ballad that also resonates as a modern parable about the costs of war.
Justin said, “Those were study songs (‘Lone Pine Hill’ and ‘Ghost of VA’), stories that I made up, but I’m a big Civil War buff, so when it comes to story songs usually those are based on historic things, but not historical fact.”
Of this recorded 2008 performance, “Earle comprehensively showed the Annandale audience that night that he has the talent to carry the weight of his name and doesn’t take it for granted. You can see the respect he has for the history and evolution of the strands of Americana that he studies, yet in a live setting he performs with an intense showman attitude and isn’t afraid to show the raw and real honesty that is often missing from contemporary music.”

With Justin’s second full-length album, “Midnight at the Movies” (2009), that vision came into sharper focus. On guitar, his technique remained deeply rooted in Travis picking, but the melodies were growing away from the simplicity of folk, and the lyrics were cutting closer to the bone. The pain was real, whether he was struggling with hopefulness (“Here We Go Again”) or betraying a lover (“Someday I’ll Be Forgiven for This”), and his writing was sharper. When he looked into the mirror on “Mama’s Eyes,” he was able to admit that “I ain’t fooling no one / I am my father’s son.”

He’d grown up in Nashville, Tennessee, living with his mother while Steve left to pursue music and fame, setting a long, painful example of a career endangered by drugs and alcohol. Following close behind, Justin overdosed for the first time as a teenager, just as he was beginning to write songs. Over the years, his father stayed in touch, extending support as Justin moved from punk to string band to a solo act, earning his own outlaw reputation for anger, excess, and addiction.

An invitation to house-sit his father’s New York City apartment gave Justin the change of scene he needed, and with the album that followed, “Harlem River Blues”, he grew more comfortable in his own skin. His primary folk influences—the Carter Family, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie—were still central, but he was taking them in new directions, assimilating blues, rockabilly, and gospel to build a sound that was contemporary, urban, and iconoclastic.

The Americana Music Association, which had named him 2009’s Emerging Artist of the Year, gave “Harlem River Blues” its 2010 award for Song of the Year. GQ magazine included him among the 25 Most Stylish Men in the World. He was on the verge of a commercial breakthrough, but couldn’t resist the pull of heroin and cocaine, with erratic performances on and offstage that caused him to cancel his tour and enter rehab once again.

One sober year later, he’s re-emerged with “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now”, which is the leap he’s been trying to make all along. It’s a dark, shadowy, unsparing album that builds on his love of soul music to more directly face his demons. On the first cut, “Am I That Lonely Tonight?,” the radio voice of his father taps into a deep well of loneliness, and the feeling only continues on “Unfortunately, Anna,” about a street-walker, and “Won’t Be the Last Time,” where he sings, “When I was young / I was dumb and I was free / Now I’m getting older / And I feel this world closing in on me.”

Nothing has its share of upbeat songs too, like “Baby’s Got a Bad Idea,” but most are about loss, and the production’s boldest touch, its horn section, reinforces that slow, dragging gravity that cuts across the album. The core of the band—Bryn Davies (upright bass), Paul Niehaus (electric guitar, steel guitar), Bryan Owings (drums), Skylar Wilson (piano, organ), and Cory Younts (guitar, piano)—is tighter than ever, slowing down to support Earle in a way that allows him to be completely himself: worn, weary, and ultimately wiser.

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