Justin Townes Earle doesn’t romanticise his years as an addict or the battles with his father, fellow musician Steve Earle, finds Fiona Shepherd
There is a long and somewhat sentimental tradition of celebrating one’s parents in song – Kanye West’s collaboration with Paul McCartney, Only One, being the latest example – and a slightly shorter strain of harsh paternal indictments from the likes of the Wainwright siblings, Rufus and Martha. Eminem’s lyrics about his mother, meanwhile, demonstrate that there’s a thin line between love and hate.
Justin Townes Earle, however, has delivered both bouquets and brickbats in the form of his acclaimed album, Single Mothers, released in September, and its companion piece, Absent Fathers, to be released on Monday. Earle’s parents split up when he was two, and he was raised by his mother, Carol Ann Hunter. His (once) absent father is respected country rocker Steve Earle, and it was he who advised his son to write about what he knows and understands.
“I’ve never been a bashful person – obviously something I get from my father,” he says. “There’s nothing for people to figure out about me, no dirt for anybody to dig up about me somewhere in my past because I’ve already given it.”
Earle Jr’s music is more of a musical gumbo than his father’s, drawing on elements of folk, blues and rockabilly as well as country. But it’s easy enough to spot the family resemblance in his southern drawl, songwriting talent and struggles with substances.
Earle grew up digging Nirvana and Dr Dre, like his peers, and made his first forays into music in a ragtime band called The Swindlers and rock outfit The Distributors. Unlike his peers, he turned to drugs at the age of 12 and spent the next decade or so in the grip of addiction.
“I was never one of those people that was confused, ‘oh I can quit in a day’ – I knew I couldn’t quit any day,” he says. “I always knew there was something different about the way that I used drugs and drank to the way that my friends did, but it’s a wild thing to wake up when you’re 16 years old and realise you can’t stop shooting up.
“The first time I did heroin, all the troubles I had just didn’t matter,” he recalls. “It’s not that they went away, they just did not matter anymore. And after that it was just chasing that damn feeling that I never got again. There was this major wound inside of me and instead of doing anything about it, I kept picking at it and it never heals because of that.”
Music poured some balm on the wound. The creative epiphany came when Earle heard Woody Guthrie – a musician who talked as he did. “I realised there was a way to come from the place I came from,” he says. “I found an amount of comfort in it and I also found something I was good at that was legal.”
There was also the direct influence of his godfather and namesake, the late Townes Van Zandt. “I took a lot from Townes – don’t explain too much or write your song like it’s a thesis, don’t give them all the information, leave some things out for interpretation…” But Earle rejects a romanticised view of Van Zandt, who died in 1997 after a (truncated) lifetime of addiction, as a misunderstood soul. “I do have memories of the man but none of them are good,” he says with a familial bluntness.
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Although Earle’s innate musical talents earned him a publishing deal in his teens, there were plenty of bumps along the way to recognition as a writer and performer – and all, Earle would probably admit, of his own making. “The anger that I carried around, I thought that I had a right to it for a long time,” he says. “But what quality of life can come from that?”
That first deal went south, courtesy of his addictions. He then suffered the ignominy of being thrown out of his father’s band, The Dukes, for the same reason. Tough love indeed, but also a wake-up call. “The last thing in the world that anybody wants to do is listen to their parents,” says Earle. “But my father has been sober for 18, 19 years – if he can do it, anybody can damn well do it, believe me. On my early records there are songs I wrote during the period when I was very intoxicated all the time but there was no way I could have made those records back then. I definitely had to be sober to figure out who I was as an artist and to have cohesion in my life.”
The artistic breakthrough came in 2007 with the release of the Yuma EP, its title track an unvarnished acoustic tale of a wasted life which demonstrated that Earle shared his father’s gift for storytelling. His debut album The Good Life followed a year later. Save for a vodka and cocaine-fuelled relapse during the recording and touring of 2010’s Harlem River Blues – when a fight with a club promoter over pay led to a night in the cells and a month in rehab – Earle has made all of his albums while sober.
Since that not inconsiderable blip, Earle has steered his life back on track once again. He is now married and settled – as much as he’ll probably ever be – in his native Nashville. He has nurtured his softly spoken musical voice over successive albums and, in addition to making his own music, curated and produced the album Unfinished Business for rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson in 2012. Demand to see him at Celtic Connections next week was such that his show has already been upgraded to a much larger venue.
But while all appears hunky dory, Earle still draws on dark autobiographical matter for his outwardly gentle songs – the laidback soulfulness of the title track of Single Mothers belying its baleful lyrics: “absent father, never offer even a dollar... absent father is long gone”.
“The first record [Single Mothers] was written like a lot of my songs – in a state of confusion and somewhat despair,” he says. The forthcoming Absent Fathers is a touch lighter in mood – very pleasurable listening, until you contemplate the lyrics. “On the second record the character sees a light at the end of the tunnel – but it’s still just a pinhole way the hell off in the distance. I do like writing upbeat sounding songs that are not happy. Who can relate to a song about partying all night and spending a lot of money, which a lot of songs are about these days? There’s no heart in that.
“I believe as humans, we lose much more than we win,” he continues with a heap of that characteristic candour.
“And I realise that, when it comes right down to it, there’s nothing extraordinary about me. I just know how to lay words out. That’s what I know how to do in life, the rest of it I’m still pretty unsure about,” he says.
• Absent Fathers is released via Loose Music on Monday. Justin Townes Earle plays the ABC, Glasgow on 17 January as part of Celtic Connections.
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