Justin Townes Earle - Channelling the willpower
Justin Townes Earle is a young man in a hurry. The singer-songwriter son of hard-living singer, songwriter and author Steve Earle arrives in Scotland this weekend to promote his first album, The Good Life, but he already has the follow-up written, the studio where it will be recorded booked for five days in October and the track sequence organised.
The reason for this urgency is, he says with deadpan certainty: “I should be dead by now.”
At twenty-six, Earle has, he says, already gone down all the roads his father took. His first album’s release finds him eight years behind schedule – everything was in place for him to start his recording career when he was eighteen – but stuff got in the way. Stuff like heroine addiction, alcoholism and messing up so badly and so often that his father, who’s been there, done that and got the t-shirt, fired him from his band.
Unlike his father, the younger Earle hasn’t served time in prison, although he did spend three months in a correctional centre after Earle senior began to despair that his oldest son would ever get himself sorted out and had him incarcerated.
In the end, it took a near-death experience – one of several – before “JT” (he got his middle name from Texan Townes Van Zandt, who was a great example as a singer-songwriter but not so good from a lifestyle angle) saw the error of his ways.
“I was twenty when dad sacked me and I deserved it completely,” he says. “I wasn’t even a very good guitarist and keyboardist back then. More to the point, though, I had a bad drug habit and I was drunk all the time. Then I landed up in hospital. I’d had bad experiences before but this time I was kept in for forty-eight hours and yet I woke up and started using again.”
A week later, however, he checked himself into a treatment centre.
“I don’t know why – why this time. I’m one of the most wilful people on this planet and if there’s a rule to be broken, I’ll break it,” he says on his mobile phone from Winnipeg, where’s appearing at one of Canada’s top folk festivals. “But I think, in the end, you’ve gotta know what you’re here for. It’s, what, ten thirty in the morning. By this time of the day I used to be completely wasted. I’d miss the tour bus and I’d be in some dodgy neighbourhood looking to score. Now I know that nobody’s paying for me to get messed up. I’ve got a show to do tonight and they want me there on stage, on time, sober and ready to be as good as I can be.”
Music – specifically getting his career on track - has given his life focus but then, there’s always been music in his life. Growing up in Nashville, he could hardly avoid it and he spent his teens playing in the bluegrass-ragtime group The Swindlers and the louder, more rocking The Distributors. Neither outfit kept him away from temptation. That took something more, which has involved finding, he says, that he can enjoy being a member of society for the first time.
Another factor has been a good book. Not the good book, which has been credited with saving many another musician from a life of dissolution, but biographies and histories, about the United States in general and the American Civil War in particular. One of the stand-out tracks on The Good Life is Lone Pine Hill, in which Earle tells of the bleak loneliness of a Civil War soldier.
“One of the pieces of advice that my dad gave me and I did pay attention to was, he said you should read a lot, because if you put nothing in then nothing good comes out,” he says. “So I’ve been studying the Civil War, although I wouldn’t consider myself an expert, and it’s given me ideas. I’ve never written a song based on a character from a book because that just doesn’t seem to work for me. I’d get so far and it would feel false, so what I did with Lone Pine Hill was create my own character and place and then colour them from real events, and that somehow feels more authentic.”
Earle’s self-education in history extends to music. If much of The Good Life has the feel of classic American music going back to its roots in blues, Appalachian ballads, vintage country songs and the Woody Guthrie school of songwriting, that’s because Earle has made it his business to study what came before.
“I’ve always been told that everything that’s good started way before I was born,” he says. “And I think it’s very important for a singer-songwriter to check this out because too many of them think that it’s enough to know three chords and be able to string rhymes together. There’s a certain way that songwriting’s done and let’s face it, you’ve got .9999% of a chance of coming up with something original. So if the best you’re ever likely to achieve is adding a wing to a structure that’s already there, you have to pay close attention to the people who put that structure in place.”
The songs for the next album came relatively easily and find Earle in a better place both mentally and physically than some of The Good Life’s tracks, three of which were written in crack houses.
“I can write anywhere and although I like to work as fast as I can, I still want to make sure that what I’m doing is notable,” he says. “The problem in the past was that I’d write a lot and half the time I wouldn’t remember what I’d written. But now I know that you don’t have to torture yourself to write songs. It’s not cool, as someone else said, to kill yourself and while it might not sound cool to be getting inspiration from history books, take it from me, that’s way better than the alternative.”
From The Herald, July 17, 2008.