For all the Air Miles Rewards he racked up touring with his father, Steve, and his much publicized move to New York City, it’s surprising to hear Justin Townes Earle call Nashville home. But while he’s a noted transient — he describes bouncing from countless relatives’ homes, while his songs name-drop everywhere from south Georgia to Gotham — one thing is clear: You can take the boy out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the boy. Or so they say.
“My family, on my dad’s side, they’re all farmers from eastern Texas. My mom’s side, they’re all from eastern Kentucky,” he says, his gentle drawl mirroring his baritone singing timbre. “I grew up in a working-class neighbourhood, so I identify with the types of people who work for a living. I think it gave me a good base — that’s the everyday struggle of hand-to-mouth, hand-to-mouth.”
It’s a type of quote that you’d expect to hear from his father — the man who polarized country-music audiences with “John Walker’s Blues,” a first-person narrative written from the eyes of an American al-Qaida member. But the younger Earle is a different beast; a quick glance at his tattoos — see the crossed sledgehammers on his thumbs or the hammer and sickle adorning his right bicep — tell of other political allegiances.
“I believe in workers’ rights to decide their working environment, and I believe in the idea of socialist government,” he says. “My father turned me on to a lot of my political stances. But I’m admittedly more radical than my father, who’s into peace and love and stuff like that. I’m all about storming the castle.”
The contrasts don’t stop there. Unlike Jakob Dylan or Trace Cyrus, Justin’s eked a career that shouldn’t — but always will — garner comparisons to his father’s: 2008’s The Good Life was a historian’s record, veering from honky-tonk to energetic Bakersfield numbers. Midnight at the Movies, released the following year, was a fingerpicked brooder that had him realizing his royal middle name. 2010’s Harlem River Blues, on the other hand, is a collision of soul and gospel. That’s an elasticity — a talent, if you may — that his father never possessed.
“I was looking at gospel music as it develops in two different families: the Carter family and the Staples singers,” he says of his latest release. “It was me tracking their music from the early place in the church to the more secular versions later.”
Indeed, Justin’s long memory might be his calling card — whether memorialized in his music or via his well-documented personal demons, which landed him in rehab earlier this year. (“I had to clear out the cobwebs,” he says. “I have some medication now that makes me function like a human being.”) But for his reverence of standards, don’t call him a traditionalist — in fact, he’s noticing more of the tattoos-and-pomade set among his followers.
“Punk rock is an attitude, and I’m a little snarly, and they get into it — and I tell the truth, and I think they like that. They like the ‘this-is-the-way-it-is’ attitude. Country musicians have always been like that, anyways. It’s like George Jones from the Louisiana hayride — drunk as hell and chasing the girls or whatever he can get his hands on. They were the original punk rockers.”