Justin Townes Earle returns with a little bit of ‘Nothing’ on his mind
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Justin Townes Earle may no longer live in Tennessee, but he’s still considers it home.
The singing, songwriting son of country-rocker Steve Earle left the Volunteer State for New York a couple of years ago, but he’s never forgotten his roots. He comes back regularly to visit a girlfriend who lives in West Tennessee, and his most recent album — “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now,” released in March — completes a sort of musical journey that began five years ago with his debut album “Yuma.”
“I started with the Carter Family, who were from Southwest Virginia but made their first recordings in Bristol,” Earle told The Daily Times this week. “I started up there with ‘Yuma,’ and then I slid to Nashville for ‘The Good Life and ‘Midnight at the Movies,’ then came over to Memphis for ‘Harlem River Blues.’ And we stayed there for this new one.
“I think this new record is the one I’ve wanted to make for a really long time. I just had some steps I had to take first to get there.”
Filled with blowing horns, pounding piano and a heaping helping of soul that Al Green would appreciate, the new record is arguably Earle’s most “modern.” He’s always been enamored with anachronistic genres of music, from traditional country that no longer gets radio airplay to gospel-tinged rockabilly to hillbilly folk. Although still technically a young man, Earle has an old soul, and he didn’t fit in growing up in Nashville in the 1990s, he said.
“I spent some time in Memphis when I was younger, 12 or 13 and hanging out with some older boys, because if you were a punk rock fan in Nashville, you had to go to Memphis, because punk bands didn’t come to Nashville,” he said. “Back then, I was just a dumb 13-year-old, huffing glue and acting like an idiot.”
As Earle’s son, he was musically inclined, and during his teens in Nashville, he played in the bluegrass/ragtime combo The Swindlers and the more-rocking Distributors, and he gave a half-hearted effort at a solo career. In addition to talent, however, he inherited something else from his dad — a love of drugs and alcohol. Although he played as part of his dad’s band for a while, he was eventually fired by the old man because of his habits.
“Yuma” announced him to the world, but “The Good Life” set him apart from his old man. I record steeped in country tradition, it made Justin Townes Earle a respected name in Americana circles, a reputation upheld on his subsequent releases. In late 2010, however, he fell off the wagon and was arrested in Indianapolis, returning to rehab shortly thereafter.
The time since has been a rebuilding process emotionally, he said. He’s addressing his mental health in ways he never has in the past, and he’s found a path to serenity outside of traditional recovery programs.
“I’m definitely in the best spot I’ve ever been in; I just had to step back and realize that I was doing alright, but obviously I was still doing some (stuff) wrong,” he said. “I was fighting in my everyday life — I had the job I wanted, and I was becoming successful at it, but I was miserable. And I had to admit to myself as a man that Hemingway is a liar.
“Now, I’m working with doctors — head-shrinkers — and I’m listening to them. I’m taking the (expletive) medication. There’s a huge difference between me being medicated and not medicated; it’s like a complete 180. I never realized how brooding and volcanic I was before.”
Being in love doesn’t hurt, either, he added. And the fact that his girlfriend lives in Memphis ... well, given the feel of “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now,” Earle’s future may include more time in West Tennessee than he might have thought upon feeling Nashville a few years ago.
“Memphis was like the meeting place for all of this music that covered all this ground,” he said. “I think the elements on this record aren’t going as far back into the past. I’m looking into some primitive, early ’60s soul stuff on this record, and I want to keep one foot planted in the beginning of this soul thing — and that’ll leave one foot free to get into whatever else I want.
“All of my other records, they’ve led up to this record. This is what I’ve been trying to say, and this is definitely not Americana, at least not in the traditional sense of the word.”