Tim Easton can’t really give you a simple answer when you ask where he’s from. The singer-songwriter-guitarist, who’s 55, lives in Nashville, was born in upstate New York and grew up in Akron, Ohio. But he’s also spent time in Tokyo, has a Los Angeles phone number, and when reached by the Scene, just got done with a 40-day tour of Alaska — an annual tradition, he explains.
The Buckeye State is where Easton's journey got underway, though. The son of a tire-factory worker, he grew up a generation between Devo and The Black Keys, Akron's most famous exports. Easton is a music lover as much as a musician himself. Speaking to him on the phone before he takes the stage for a gig in St. Paris, Ohio, near Dayton, it's a solid half-hour before we even get to his new LP You Don't Really Know Me.
But it’s worth discussing. The LP, Easton's 10th, includes tributes to a pair of late local luminaries: creative north star John Prine (“Voice on the Radio”) and friend and colleague Justin Townes Earle (“River Where Time Was Born”). Dark as its subject matter gets, the record's sound is wearily optimistic. And it is resonating, as indicated by its surprise appearance on the Americana Music Association’s Radio Albums Chart. He’ll ride those tailwinds into tonight’s show at The Basement (Upstate Mojo opens at 7 p.m.; you can no longer buy a ticket online but they’ll be $10 at the door) and performances at AmericanaFest which rolls into town later this month.
Tell me about your connection to Alaska.
[laughs] I wore a vintage Alaska T-shirt on the cover of my first record New West put out, in 2001 [The Truth About Us]. A promoter called me and invited me up, and I’ve gone every year since. It recharges me. I’ve had a fascination with Alaska since I was a kid, when my dad, who worked for Goodyear, got transferred to Japan. We had a layover [in Alaska], and I saw it from the window of a plane. I think it’s one of the most powerful places in the world, people- and nature-wise. I live the dream up there. Fish for salmon in the summertime, play gigs, earn a living.
Do you own land there?
I actually did, and sold it — all for the love of Tennessee. [laughs] But I’d like to again someday.
Coming of age in Akron, is one raised with a reverence for Devo?
Absolutely. My high school buddies and I were huge Devo freaks in the ’80s.
What about The Black Keys?
I’m older than Dan [Auerbach] and Patrick [Carney], and can’t say I know them well, but they went to [Firestone], the same high school I did.
Any insights into what is in the water in Ohio — why so much great music’s been made there?
That Rust Belt area is the heartbeat of America. Detroit and Akron — one builds cars, one builds tires. … And when things go bust, it paves the way for rock ’n’ roll.
And you had an L.A. period as well?
Yeah — like any troubadour, I ended up living there for a year, in Los Feliz. But I signed with New West right after I got there, so I went out on the road before establishing any name in that town. It’s still the same for me in Nashville, really. But I want to play more here. I actually just played my first-ever show downtown. It was supposed to be covers. But I played mostly originals. [laughs]
Did you have a love of country music before you moved to Nashville?
Oh, yeah. If Hank Williams’ music doesn’t speak to you, move you, you may not really understand humanity. It’s just so real, such perfect writing. Same with Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, or Snoop Dogg. … no one has bad things to say about any of those people. Some characters are just so intense, so powerful, so iconic.
Do you have any thoughts on the term “Americana”?
No self-respecting artist wants their music to be called that. I like it better than “alt-country,” but let’s face it. It’s a marketing term. There’s room for one or two Jason Isbells, just a couple stars, then the rest of us working our asses off, groveling around for whatever we can get.
Are living-room shows a big thing for you?
Definitely. Without them, I couldn’t make ends meet. There’s nothing between you and the audience. You can have a really good one with 20 people or even less, build lifelong connections. When you don’t bust in big on the charts, it’s a way of life. I’m extremely grateful for it.
Did you write You Don’t Really Know Me during the pandemic?
I made it during that time, but I think it’s more uplifting and hopeful than a “we’re all screwed” vibe.
It’s been billed as a recovery record. What age were you when you found sobriety?
For a long time I was what they call “California sober.” No disrespect, I think weed should be legal, but it’s not a cure for depression. It got me thirsty again, and I didn’t want to go to jail for getting behind the wheel after drinking. I was like, “I have to get help.” That was five years ago, but I window-shopped with recovery for a decade before that.
What are some effective coping mechanisms you’ve developed?
Use the phone and call someone. Check in, ask how they’re doing. Get out of yourself. Realize you’re not alone. Practice radical honesty, because secrets will take you down. Get off the couch and start walking. Make better diet choices.. That’s a big deal. Sugar, fried food, all that —
Yes. There’s a connection between your physical and mental being. They both need to be worked on to function as best they can.
I’ve noticed more deliberate, sober safe spaces at festivals and conferences in recent years.
At things like SXSW, AmericanaFest and Folk Alliance, artists are gathered to do the worst thing they could possibly do, which is to mix business with art. When you’ve got big egos, low self-esteem, people more talented than you who are getting more attention than you —
Sounds like a recipe for impostor syndrome.
It totally messes with the artistic mind. Some are not strong enough to handle it, and end up overindulging. I’ve botched countless SXSW performances because I was out of my mind. That's a fact. Reaching out and asking for help is what takes the longest, when you’re young and stubborn. There’s a misconception you have to hit rock bottom, but you don’t. You might not even be an addict or an alcoholic. You may just need some help. That’s why I don’t judge if people want to smoke weed, or do mushrooms. I’m just concerned with your happiness — and if you’re not happy, what can we do about it?
What music kept you sane in 2020, and did any of it inform your direction on You Don’t Really Know Me?
Music without words, and old, Black blues guys. I still try to do my own thing, but my influences are in there — The Beatles, Dylan and hopefully Lightnin’ Hopkins. Justin Townes [Earle] was always talking about Mance Lipscomb, but I never took the deep dive until now. Getting obsessed with someone’s guitar style, the way they do the same song, but two different ways … obsession is another form of addiction. [laughs]