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.