Justin Townes Earle at the Great American Music Hall

I first learned of Justin Townes Earle in an issue of GQ magazine that featured the 25 most stylish entertainers. His name piqued my curiosity. Here’s why:

He is the son of Steve Earle, who I saw open for Tom Petty once, and he is named after Townes Van Zandt, one of my favorite songwriters. (He’s the guy who does the country version of Dead Flowers at the end of The Big Lebowski).

I started listening to Justin Townes Earle’s first album, Midnight at the Movies, the day I read that article and immediately became attached. He picks the guitar beautifully, and lyrically he confronts modern problems with a throwback approach.

For example, the song Midnight at the Movies sounds on the surface like an old ‘50s song about catching a movie and eating red hots. Listen closer and you’ll see that it’s really about him living on the streets of Nashville, running drugs and waiting for a smutty gal name Martha to slip in and provide some physical pleasure. She leaves before the credits roll, and in her absence he says: “There ain’t nothing lonelier than, midnight at the movies again.”

These songs sound even stronger live than they do on the album. And it’s also nice to hear him speak, giving glimpses into the songs’ meanings.

He said he normally introduces the song “ChristChurch Woman” with a snarky-but-true story about a young lady, but since this show was the day after New Zealand’s big earthquake, he dedicated it to the ravaged city instead.

For most of his set, he was accompanied by a heavily bearded violinist and a female cellist. His guitar picking is smooth and effortless. It sounds as if he’s got an extra guitar player tucked away somewhere on stage.

Anyway, the show was awesome. With the rise of rootsy bands like Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers, I wouldn’t be surprised if this guy catches some upward momentum, especially if he’s already been featured in GQ somehow.

He said he was supposed to make it to San Francisco for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival this past summer but ended up in jail. His reason: He enjoys the cocaine a bit too much. And that, he says, can cause problems.

Combine that with the way he references love for his mother and tension with his father and what you get is a hard-nosed dude who is both likeable, but probably complexly troubled.

Apply that last sentence as a description of his music, and it’s equally accurate. Here’s another great track, called Harlem River Blues.

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Show in SF March 6th – Brainwash Cafe

The show starts at 6pm and I go on at 7. The Brainwash Cafe in San Francisco is a bar/cafe/laundromat combo, which sounds like a good time to me. Entry is free and beer is $1. My talented friend Ryan Dishen will play right after me, at 8pm.

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North Korea needs less clamp-down, more Clapton

The headline is better than the story, and I’m not sure this is even a good fit for this blog. Either way, it looked like a nice opportunity to do some quick lunch-break photo cropping of a guitar God and a weird pot-bellied dictator. So here you go.

“Of course, there is nothing preventing Kim Jong Il from opening up North Korea so his people could enjoy Clapton, and maybe get more to eat.” – U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.

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A burrito, a power nap, and some Adderall

This is a story about a time I traded a $3 burrito for an Adderall pill. It’s also about a realization I had one year later, after taking a power-nap in an office bathroom stall.

It was 2006, and the only thing that stood between me and my bachelor’s degree was a 35-page research paper about the future of the music industry.

Read the full blog on the Huffington Post.

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$50 from a semi-homeless saxophonist

A partially homeless neighborhood friend of mine asked me a week ago — right after I came down with strep throat — if I was interested in playing a three-hour show at a local boutique store. He played tons of sax in his youth, but had lost the ability to hold down three hours by himself as he’d aged. I agreed, while still extremely ill, to accompany him on the gig, which would come with a $150 paycheck.

I wondered whether I could accept any of the money from person who didn’t have a home, but figured I’d approach the issue later.

I ended up playing the bulk of the show myself, with my friend picking up his instrument regularly and soloing between verses and during extended interludes. He sounded great, which was pleasant considering the fact that neither of us had ever played together before the actual show. It was the first time I had ever played alongside a saxophone, and I dug it.

Another guy sat in and played an awesome old Portuguese song in the middle of the set, which was killer. He came back at the end and played The Boxer, by Simon and Garfunkel.

I was still recovering from my strep, so when we gathered at a nearby cafe after the show, I just drank water while the other guys and girls swigged beer and wine. My friend approached me from behind and slipped me $50. He then whispered into my ear and told me that the guy who had played the Portuguese song and The Boxer was having some money problems. He stepped past me and gave him $50 as well. It was a homeless man handing half of his hundred dollars over to a guy who had played two songs. It was a nice thing to watch.

I kept my cut happily, and totally void of guilt. Sure, I could have insisted that they divy up my money as well, and I thought about doing that. But what would that have said about our musical collaboration? It would have turned the performance into a piece of charity, which is not what the night was about. It was about hustling up a gig and playing some songs, which is exactly what we did.

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Sittin’ on the dock of the bay

I was in Santa Monica a couple of weeks ago and my friend Rudy and I grabbed a couple of beers at some downtown bar. When we left, we heard this guy playing La Bamba on a bench outside. When we asked him to play another song, he gave us this peppy rendition of an old Otis Redding tune. He introduced it as one of those “old American Corn Flakes songs.” I’m not sure what that means, but I like it. (Stick with this song until he gets into the: “Looks like, nothing’s gonna change…” That part’s extra solid.

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Two Hundred Thou dot com

I just stumbled across a Huffington Post article about a Northeastern student who took out $200,000 in loans and has since created a site dedicated to collecting online donations to pay off the debt. Her name is Kelli Space and her payments are about $800+ per month.

KelliSpaceI can’t decided how I feel about it, especially having read the many criticisms of her mission. Quotes like this, from an article called “Kelly Space, You’re an Idiot,” make me a bit uncomfortable: “Who goes that far into debt for a sociology degree and then decides to panhandle on the Internet because they made a poor life choice?”

I sympathize with Kelli’s (potentially) ill-advised decision to plunge into debt for school, but I understand why the decision was  made. It’s unfair for someone (in this case a blogger) to oversimplify the allure of college to a hard-working high school kid, and then brand that person an “idiot” while they try to think of ways to navigate the repercussions. That said, I understand why she’s being criticized. Plenty of kids are in debt, so why drop your dollars into her hand?

But on the flip side, why drop your dollars (or nickels or pennies) into my guitar case? Perhaps because I’m playing, ahem, a guitar. And the focus is mostly on the music, not so much the tallying up of dollars.

I’m fine with what Kelli’s doing. She’s not making anybody give anything, and she’s an illustration of a larger, very messed up, situation. There’s value in that.

Let’s leave on this note: I just Googled “Justin Cox, You’re an Idiot,” and I ended up with this story about Justin Bieber wanting to go to college when he gets older.

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