Justin Townes Earle never pretended there wasn't a dark cloud hanging over his past. But three and a half years ago, he stepped into the limelight as his own man. He simply got down to business, touring like there was no tomorrow and not letting a year pass without putting out another new, worth-hearing album on the Chicago indie Bloodshot. In so doing, he made that cloud seem to fade into the distance — whether by design, musical hunger or sheer survival instinct — and became a singer, songwriter and old-timey stylist of some importance, both to his peers and to people who've got some years on him.
In mid-September, the lanky, 28-year-old Nashville ex-pat released his latest album, Harlem River Blues. It's his third full-length — and the first one he's had a hand in producing — and since he's been building considerable momentum along with his discography, you'd expect him to be fielding interview questions about things like artistic development. But this hasn't been the smoothest of record promotion cycles.
Two days after Harlem River hit the street, Earle's tour brought him to the Indianapolis rock club Radio Radio, and that particular night didn't end so well. There was an altercation. The boys in blue were called. Earle congenially declines to offer his take on the incident two months after the fact: "It's actually still at trial," he says, quite congenially. "And so it's been suggested that I don't speak about it, other than to just say that it happened nothing like what the accounts said. There are several press organizations that jumped the gun without speaking to me first and have fallen from my graces with their half-cocked accounts of what happened." (My Old Kentucky Blog could be one he has in mind: A blogger there acknowledged not having spoken to Earle, while alleging that "Earle flew into a rage, assaulting the venue owner and reportedly closed-fist punching the owner's daughter.")
Whatever the details of that night, soon after, Earle pulled the plug on the tour and checked himself into rehab. It wasn't the first time, though he hadn't had to do it since a few years before his music career took off. Frank by nature — except when legal ramifications make it wiser for him not to be — he's made no secret of the fact that he spent the better part of his adolescence mired in drug and alcohol addiction and very nearly lost his life to all that mess at age 21.
"The going in and out of treatment thing is something I've also been dealing with most of my life," he says. "I don't see it as any earth-shattering setback." Still, he adds, "This time there was a lot more at stake when I went in to do it."
Now that he's out of treatment, Earle's ready to get back to touring behind his new album, beginning with a two-night stand in his old hometown. (He now calls New York City home.) He'll carry with him a more strenuous brand of realism. "I understand this disease very well," he says. "I've dealt with it my whole life through family members. I mean, my father wasn't the only person in my family that was — for lack of a better term — fucked-up. (His father is, of course, reformed rabble rouser and revered singer-songwriter Steve Earle.) I've dealt with it most of my life. It's really one of those things that you hold a very light grip on, no matter how powerful you think you are, no matter what you do. It rears its ugly head when it rears its ugly head.
"The last time I was clean for six years. And that's the longest I've gone without doing drugs since I started using drugs when I was 10 years old. I'm at that point where it's like I've been high the majority of my life. It's a really hard thing to get away from. It's one of those things that you watch it crush people on a daily basis. ... I'm never gonna say that I'm never gonna take a drink again, and I'm never gonna say that I'm never gonna use drugs again, because all that does is set me up for disappointment."
To do what he can to avoid that disappointment, Earle's getting a lot more serious about controlling his environment on the road. As for the songs he'd written and recorded before all this, they'd already gotten more serious. His debut, The Good Life, wasn't without its heavy-hearted ballads, but the strongest impression it left was that of a rakish figure who got around, got away with things and got loose to honky-tonk shuffles and jump blues.
Literally and figuratively at the heart of the new album is a song called "Slippin' and Slidin'," down-and-out R&B fleshed out with Jason Isbell's wiry rhythm guitar playing, Skylar Wilson's smoldering organ and melancholic horns. It's a spot-on confession of a man who knows his limits and tests them anyway.
Bookending the 11 tracks are "Harlem River Blues" and its reprise. A person sings blues alone, but this number's got an eight-voice choir and the energy of a celebratory postwar gospel boogie. But you couldn't rightly call it gospel, either. If it sounds like the character's going down to the river to get baptized, there's an important difference: He's dreaming of going under and staying under, convinced he won't shed his burdens in this life.
Gospel music, Earle affirms, was a source of inspiration, but he takes care to qualify what he means by that: "I'm not at all ever going to attempt to preach God's word," he says, with a dry laugh. "But what I was trying to do was just capture these different sounds, the different methods and ideas. ... [W]ith stuff like "Wanderin' " and "Working for the MTA," it was kind of like reaching toward the hills of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, and then with the stuff like "Slippin' and Slidin' " and "Christchurch Woman" and "Harlem River Blues," we were kind of making our sweep from Muscle Shoals to the Delta to Memphis, Tennessee, and trying to explore those different methods. That's kind of more of what I'm interested in."
Earle's shown himself to have a real talent for stylishly bringing to life music from his dad's dad's time, and even before. But just because he often turns to vintage musical sources for their feel doesn't mean he does the same with lyrical content; he writes about things of his own time — like satellite radio — with old-timey flourish.
"I think it's very important that people write about what they know," he says. "And, you know, I don't know shit about no horse and plow. I grew up in south Nashville kind of in between Hillsboro Village and the Edgehill [neighborhood], that whole fairgrounds area. When I was a kid, I knew cars with gold wheels and fuckin' dope and street stuff. That's the way that I kind of approach it, without it being some kind of gangster glorification."
Earle draws on his present urban surroundings — many hundreds of miles away from the Tennessee fairgrounds — during the title track, his folk ballad of an MTA engineer and the eloquent hard-times-in-the-city vignette, "One More Night in Brooklyn."
Knowing that Earle comes from Nashville, people seem to like to ask him what he thinks of Music Row country. This mostly just serves to underscore the obvious — that the music he's making has very little to do with it. Recently, a satirical piece on the music blog Country California drove the point home by reporting that Earle emerged from rehab itching to make an album with Dan Huff.
Even so, Earle does retain strong musical ties to this town, and even to the Row. "I did a recording session here in New York not too long ago," he says. "And it was kind of a pain in the ass to put together a band, where in Nashville I've got a whole phonebook full of people. I could snap my fingers, and I can have a band together in 30 minutes, and I can have a studio in an hour, and we can be cracking in three. It makes it that easy. And, you know, I love making records. I record at House of David on the Row."
It's ugly irony that Earle took control of his recording process the same year his sobriety temporarily slipped from his grasp. Not that he hadn't gotten good results working with R.S. Field and Steve Poulton on his first two albums. But even then he was learning from them how to produce himself — or rather, how to co-produce with his longtime piano-playing collaborator Skylar Wilson. Earle calls himself the "idea man" in the partnership. Besides expanding his own catalog, he says he might like to try producing other acts with Wilson and their engineer cohort Adam Bednarik.
There's a lot that Earle wants to do. And since he doesn't suffer from lack of talent or drive, there's not much to keep him from doing it — except his demons. "The only thing that drugs and alcohol have ever done for the artist part of me is destroy it," he says. "When I'm fucked-up and in the middle of my addiction and it's all over me, I don't write a fuckin' thing. I've just been lucky enough that I've actually survived through it to write about it."
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