For a man who has two to three tons of expectations just in the last two words of his name, Justin Townes Earle bears his burden pretty lightly. Son of country-rock icon Steve Earle, namesake of the late, great singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, Justin is just trying to make his own way in the world. The old-timey vibe of his latest record, The Good Life is infectious and natural.
After the jump, a conversation with Justin Townes Earle on having a famous dad, his thrash-metal fans and how he feels about his Nashville hometown and the mainstream country music it’s famous for.
Smile Politely: Looks like you’ve been making shorter runs on the road lately?
Justin Townes Earle: Our first run this year was almost eight weeks, we’ve done a couple of six-week runs. It’s getting toward the end of the year, so we’re not out for more than 13, 14 days the rest of the year.
SP: When you get out on the road, would you just as soon stay on the road?
JTE: Everybody likes being on the road because that’s where you make the money, but I have been doing this for twelve years, and I’m not 18 years old anymore, you know? I’m only 26, but I don’t move like I did, and I can’t operate on the plane that I did back then. We’ve already done 200 shows this year, and before the year’s over we’re going to do probably 220, 230 shows.
SP: How’s the response been to your new album (The Good Life)?
JTE: I really couldn’t ask for much more. It hasn’t made me rich or anything, but I never expected it to do that. It keeps me working, and people seem to like it a lot. We don’t do huge shows, we do like 100, 150 a night, but we usually have half the crowd that stands right in front of the stage and sings all the lyrics, which kind of makes the show difficult at some point. The other night we played a show in Raleigh, and these guys are in a hardcore band called Folsom, and they were playing in Wilmington and they drove like two hours to see me play. And you know the music, we’re closer to the Louvin Brothers than anything, and we’ve got a six-piece thrash-metal band standing right in front of us singing every song like a thrash-metal band. But it was pretty fuckin’ awesome.
SP: Well, that means you’re not just preaching to the converted, so that’s pretty cool.
JTE: Yeah, we’ve played a lot of shows this year with Jason Isbell and the Felice Brothers, and so we did get in front of some younger audiences. I think some of the younger audiences have an aversion to hillbilly music, but most of them wear Johnny Cash t-shirts, so they like Johnny Cash, they’ve just got to find the other stuff.
SP: Do you have a lot of people that come out that are fans of your dad, or do you feel like you’re making a name in your own right at this point?
JTE: I do, and always will have, a good number of my father’s fans. It’s one of those good things, because whether it’s for curiosity or not, it’s a few more tickets sold. I think that 90 percent of the people that come to my shows come because they have the record and they know the songs. That’s been new, because last year when I was touring on Yuma, it was all just my dad’s fans. It’s not that fine of a line, but it’s easy for a son or a daughter of a famous person to walk around with a chip on their shoulder and make an ass of yourself. It’s just too easy, and too many people have already beaten the shit out of that path. Having a famous father does help, people are automatically going to pay attention to me, but I don’t have the luxury of being able to relax. Everyone’s going to compare my work to my father’s work no matter what, and I’m not Steve Earle, and I’m never going to be Steve Earle, and I’m never going to write songs like Steve Earle. I mean, he’s one of the great songwriters that’s ever lived.
SP: Yeah, you’ve got to be your own guy. I think you’re a fine songwriter in your own right.
JTE: I didn’t grow up around my Dad. I knew his music, but I wasn’t inundated with it. I listened to more hip-hop when I was growing up because I grew in more of an urban setting. So, when I started writing my own music, I’ve always had more of an old, jangly ragtime kind of feel. It was never something I tried to do, it was just how it came out.
SP: What was it like to grow up in Nashville?
JTE: When I was growing up, there was a real local hip-hop scene that was taking off, but then all the main players got arrested and are in prison now.
SP: Do you still follow hip-hop now?
JTE: Not really, like when we were at South by Southwest, Ice Cube was there and I tried my damnedest to go see it, but… I have respect for it because it’s good music. You get a group like the Roots or somebody that has good writing skills, you’ve got to have respect for it.
SP: As far as songwriting goes, has there been anyone not named Townes or Earle that you’ve been influenced by or tried to emulate?
JTE: I’ve been heavily influenced by Leadbelly, and then the Texas blues guys like Lightnin’ Hopkins, but as far as songwriting goes, I think I’ve been most influenced by Shane MacGowan and Tom Waits’ writing, but at the same time I’ve studied Hank Williams’ writing. I’ve never had enough of an attention span to be like those kids that are old-timey freaks and dress old-timey and they play the banjo all the time and they use old-timey slang. I just don’t have the constitution for that kind of bullshit. My playlists on my iPod are pretty scattered. I have one that goes from Guy Clark to Husker Du to Chet Baker and then some Otis Redding.
SP: Is there anybody that you get compared to that kind of rubs you the wrong way?
JTE: The one I get every time I play, like ten times, is Hank Williams, and that scares the shit out of me. And I know where it comes from, when I was growing up I watched all those old videos of Hank Williams and Porter Wagoner. They used to use condenser mikes, and the mikes were set really low, like between their guitar and their mouth, and they walked up and hunched over and sang into them. So I started doing that, and I do it to this day, I set my mike up real, real low and I hunch over and sing into it, and I sing straight and high. It’s just one of those things where you don’t want to be compared to one of your heroes, because you can never live up to it. When I hear that, you couldn’t put a six-penny nail up my ass with a sledgehammer.
SP: Have you ever played in Champaign before?
JTE: No, I’ve never played there, I’ve just stayed there a couple times going to and from Chicago.
SP: How do you feel about the term “alt-country”?
JTE: I think it’s fine. I think what it stood for in the late ‘90s grew kind of stale, it’s like now if a record comes out that’s called “the best alt-country record of the year,” it automatically tanks, because people think of guys wearing bad western shirts, wearing bifocals, their hair’s pushed over to one side of their forehead and they’re playing a Telecaster. You know, that’s the first image that pops into my head when I hear it. I tend to call my music hillbilly, or honky-tonk. I think it actually means something. I think alt-country has about as much meaning as Americana.
SP: For people like me that don’t like mainstream country, it’s more of a defense mechanism, like “I like alt-country.”
JTE: Yeah, around here we call mainstream country “shit country” and the real stuff’s called honky-tonk.