When I thank Justin Townes Earle for taking time to do an interview with me on a Saturday afternoon — surely not a touring musician's favorite time to sit down and talk shop — he answers in such a way that sets the tone for the entire conversation we proceed to have. "Rock ‘n' roll happens all the time, I'd imagine," he says.
To think that "rock ‘n' roll" is the way Earle categorizes what he does is particularly interesting: his songs are fit for a jukebox in an old country bar, the kind made before "digital" and "music" were words used in the same sentence, stocked with 45 RPM singles you could watch as the mechanical claw stole them from their slots, and the songs spun around. Yet still Earle's statement asks one to consider whether "rock ‘n' roll" is more of a sound or an attitude. Earle, at 27, has overcome a number of obstacles, many of which are documented on his latest record Midnight at the Movies, recently released on Bloodshot Records. Some of these obstacles include drug addiction, growing up in a tough Nashville neighborhood, growing up surrounded by a dissolute attitude about the music industry, and last — but certainly not least — being Steve Earle's son.
Bearing the names of two great songwriters — both his father's as well as Townes Van Zandt's — has not seemed to sway Earle any. By his attitude, his songwriting has much less to do with living up to his names and more to do with living up to the standards of American music. Fitting to that abstraction known as the American form, he claims, is far more difficult than being original. During the course of our conversation, we talked about Earle's upbringing, about being an American artist in the post-Nirvana musical climate, about his new record, and about his upcoming show at the historic Rose Bowl Tavern in Urbana.
Smile Politely: Who do you admire, musically? That question is a sort of a preface to where your sound originates.
Justin Townes Earle: I'm a huge George Jones fan, but I'm also into Johnny Paycheck — really early Johnny Paycheck — and all the Carter Family, and all the bluegrass you can eat. My influences start around the time of Charlie Poole, and they start getting fewer and further between once the ‘60s came along. About early 1900s to 1955 is my favorite era of music.
SP: I got that Charlie Poole boxed set in the mail and it hit me out of left field. It was like finding an unplowed resource.
JTE: The one in the cigar box? Yeah, it's pretty incredible stuff. That's the beginning of country music right there.
SP: You've mentioned in other interviews how you were struck by Nirvana's cover of [Leadbelly's] "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?", and you also do a Replacements cover on your new record, Midnight at the Movies. How do these disparate influences interact with one another?
JTE: I've always been convinced of the fact that great songs are just great songs. You can do them just about any way. If a song is truly great it can be done in any fashion you choose to do it. The Nirvana and the Replacements thing — I was born in 1982. When I was young the Replacements were on the radio everywhere. As for Nirvana, I was just like every other kid my age — I was obsessed with Kurt Cobain. It worked out well for me, musically. I'm not going to say I was smart by any means, but there was some reason that Leadbelly song caught my ear. It made me start wanting to look backwards, which I think was better for me. Kurt Cobain didn't base his songwriting off of the Violent Femmes or any other band that came before them. He based his songs on Leadbelly, and off of Woody Guthrie. That's a big problem that didn't start then, but that came with that generation of music, which is when people started to play music like music started with Nirvana. That's how you end up with a bunch of shit. Nirvana didn't arrive at Nirvana because it was Nirvana. They were all big music fans.
SP: Part of what's so interesting about that song particularly, and also what you do, is that it's kind of a collapsing of time in music in some ways. It emphasizes that these songs still exist today.
JTE: Those songs translate to modern times because they're solidly great songs. I don't think there was any more abundance of great songwriters back then; it was just so hard to get recorded that only the really good stuff got recorded. Now, anybody can make a recording. That's what has diluted our music.
SP: With the old blues stuff, too, you have so many people who taught themselves. They didn't hear the recordings. They said, "Here's a guitar. I'll teach myself how to play it." It's far more interesting than someone saying, "Here's what this guy is doing; I'm going to play what he's playing."
JTE: That's one of the main things that interested me about looking back. I realized that those old guys couldn't understand quite what they were doing when they did it, and I wanted that same kind of ignorance approaching music. At that point, I threw out all of the music books. I started learning by watching video tapes of Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb and Doc Watson. There are two that were really important: The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins and A Well Spent Life, about Mance Lipscomb. A guy named Les Blank shot those. I don't know much about Les Blank, but I always assumed he was a guitar player because of the way he shot their hands when they were playing.
SP: Do you think you've achieved that sort of ignorance? Is it possible?
JTE: I just write from where I stand whenever I'm writing a song. I don't try to reach back when I'm writing my songs. You'll never hear me writing about a tractor or riding horseback. I've never done either. But the thing is, I think I needed to start with that ignorance. Up until about two years ago I didn't even know how the Nashville numbers system worked. Like the 1-4-5 in G thing. Now I'm still not lightning fast with it but I understand it a bit better. I make records in the same way. I made Yuma first, and then I made The Good Life. The reason I made Yuma first was because I felt I needed to start from the ground — from the most bare form of it, with just an acoustic guitar and a voice — and then start working my way up.
SP: As of when Midnight at the Movies came out, you've released three records in three years, which is quite a prolific turnout. A lot of the emphasis has been placed on the way the songs of your past two records have come from all different times in your life — some from when you were 16, some from right around the recording sessions. Are the songs on Midnight at the Movies mostly newer? How do you feel the new record is different from the other two?
JTE: Midnight at the Movies is definitely more grown up. I'm 27 years old, and there are a lot of things changing in my life. Midnight at the Movies represents that. It's kind of a dark record, and I made it at a point where a lot of the biggest changes needed to be made, and I made them. But the record was kind of just the confessional and the purging of it all before I could actually commit to it. All of the songs except for two were written over the seven months between making The Good Life and going into the studio for this record.
SP: Does it have to slow down soon? Or do you still have a record a year in you?
JTE: I don't know. I'm not going to make predictions about that. I've already got another record ready, and I'm about halfway done writing another one. Trying to judge the evolution or de-evolution of a songwriter's career is extremely difficult, even for said songwriter. This is the first time in my life that I wake up and consciously realize that I'm not 18 anymore, just by the way I feel. I don't think it's something I can keep up for a long period of time, especially if I'm touring constantly. But I'd like to keep it up as long as I possibly can. I really don't know any other way to do this — to live life. This is all I've ever really done. I've got to keep it up. I think I'll drown if I don't.
SP: I know it's kind of stock to talk about the process of writing a song, but when you bring a song to the table for the band, how does it end up getting fleshed out? Do you hear it with the band as you're writing it? Do you write the songs with your band?
JTE: My writing process is very personal. Nobody else is involved in that. I write the songs and the melodies and the chord progressions and the lyrics. I know the basic arrangements. The guys that I have playing with me are the best I've found. They know how to pay attention to a song. They know about texture. When you're working with a singer-songwriter you have to figure out what texture you can add to the pattern he's created. So far, they've been extremely successful at that, especially Skylar Wilson, who plays piano in my band. He's kind of the bandleader. When I've done something that I don't understand — which I do a lot because of my musical training — Skylar will fix a lot of that stuff for me. <laughs>
SP: A lot of weight from past interviews seems to be placed on "growing up on the wrong side of the tracks" in Nashville. I'm not really interested in the side of the tracks, but how did growing up in Nashville inform who you are as a musician?
JTE: Kids who grow up in Nashville grow up without full ideas of what the music industry is. You grow up with a callous cold shoulder toward the music industry because, if you grew up in Nashville, four out of five of your friends are working some menial job because they got fucked over by the music industry. Most of my friends ran as far as they could from the music business, but I dove right into it. Growing up in Nashville taught me to pay attention to who I surround myself with. You go down with whatever ship you put your cargo on.
SP: Again, jumping off of some things you've said in other interviews, you seem to mention Bruce Springsteen a lot, but most people don't seem to ask you directly about Bruce Springsteen. It's not something that immediately jumps out at people. I was wondering what sort of inspiration you take from him? I'm sure it's as much of a cultural thing surrounding where you grew up and how old you are, but what does he stand for to you?
JTE: Bruce Springsteen stands for, plain and simple, Woody Guthrie for me. He's the closest thing that I have, or that my father had, or even that my grandfather had, to Woody Guthrie. Moreso than Dylan. Dylan was a student of music. He knew all the music in that genre. Springsteen seems to have more of a "stumbled upon it" feel. You listen to Springsteen's stuff and he represents a deteriorated New Jersey shoreline. He knows how to take that picture. He writes simple songs on simple chord progressions for regular people. That's what strikes me about Springsteen. If you've ever done a backbreaking day of work in your life then you can understand a Springsteen record.
SP: Whereas — and not to discredit him — Dylan seemed to move to New York from Minnesota and make a name for himself by lying and memorizing the Harry Smith Anthology.
JTE: Exactly. Springsteen is just a little more hard knocks. I would feel bad if I punched Bob Dylan, but I wouldn't feel bad if I punched Springsteen because I know he could kick my ass. It wouldn't be so much like punching a poet. It would be punching a Jersey shoreline kid. Not that I want to punch The Boss.
SP: You pretty much lay yourself out there in your songs. Some songs have a more allegorical feel like a traditional country song. How do you feel you address things in your songs? In "Mama's Eyes" you seem to address a lot of the stuff you've been asked a million times about the way you've grown up. Why did you choose to write that song and put it on the record? How does it fit as an entry into your "growing up" record?
JTE: I've had the idea for "Mama's Eyes" for a really long time. I just hadn't committed to it yet. After the first record I got asked about my father so much, which I don't mind. My father came before me, and he's a great and famous practitioner of his form of music. I would actually be kind of appalled if people didn't ask me about it. But one thing that needs to be made clear is that people always say, "What's it like growing up with Steve Earle?", and I don't fucking know. You have just as good of an idea of what it's like growing up with Steve Earle as I do. I grew up with Carol-Ann Earle. "Mama's Eyes" was a very surgical, exact, put-the-point-across exercise to say that I will always be my father's son, but first and foremost I'm my mother's boy. I really don't have a choice but to be personal. My life is already out there. It's in three different books. There are freaks out there that are my dad's fans who know more about me than I do. I've always lived with it.
SP: How hard was it to get that song right?
JTE: I had another version of it written. It was pretty much the same verses but in a different order and with a few different inflections. I had the guy realizing he had his mother's eyes from the beginning of the song. It was missing the "edge-of-your-seat, trying to figure out what I'm trying to get to" feeling. That's why I moved the verse about my mother's eyes until the end. I also cut another verse out. There's another verse to that song that nobody will ever hear. The line about my mama's eyes came out, and I didn't need the other verse. That line said it all very simply. I do have my mama's eyes. My mama's six foot tall and skinny, and I'm six foot six and skinny. I have her smile. It said everything I wanted to say without wasting a bunch of breath, basically.
SP: I'm not asking you to sum up or comment on the state of music, but how do you feel about people who want to call what you do a throwback, or a resurgence, of some sort?
JTE: I'm okay with that because it is kind of a throwback. But it's only a throwback because people forget and people don't pay attention. Why should most Americans have to wait for something like O Brother Where Art Thou? to hear their own fucking music? Why isn't it out there already? I've always been — I won't say blessed or cursed — but my songs have always come out with an old spin on them. I don't sit down to say I'm going to write a song a certain way. People can call it whatever they want to call it as long as they pay attention to it. That's another thing I want to make clear, that Dylan made clear later in his career, which is that there's nothing new about what I'm doing. I'm not reinventing the wheel. I'm working inside very firm, existing formats. I like that because it's scarier and it's more challenging than being original. I think that all of the originality's gone. I'm not going to write the great American folk song. It's just not going to happen. I just want to write and play music. As soon as we get more kids like that out there we'll have a good time with it.
SP: Speaking of which, I saw you in Memphis with the Felice Brothers, and that seemed to be a great match because both of you seem to be doing exactly what you just said: You're not claiming to do something new. You're just doing what you do, and you're doing it well.
JTE: Touring with the Felice Brothers was great because, just like Dylan, we all know the Harry Smith Anthology. We also know all this weird, strange swampy gospel music from the early 1900s. It's fun knowing that there are more people out there representing American music. People forget that blues, bluegrass, jazz, rock ‘n' roll, country music; that's all our music, and it all belongs to the South, for that matter. We walked out on stage and saw that they sold 1,000 tickets in New York City to hipster kids. 1,000 hipster kids learned about Mississippi John Hurt that night. They learned about Doc Watson. We don't mind being teachers sometimes. There are far worse things we could be.
Justin Townes Earle plays The Rose Bowl Tavern on Sunday, March 15. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the show starts at 7 p.m. Fellow Nashville singer-songwriter (and former bandleader of Jason & the Scorchers) Jason Ringenberg opens the show. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at The Rose Bowl Tavern in advance or at the door. You must be 21 or older to enter.