Touring artists often measure success in modest but practical terms.
The first reward, of course, is the work itself – preferably, a quantity sufficient enough to allow for touring in the first place. But once the work starts coming in and an artistic identity (and popularity) is present, the focus reverts to less glamorous rewards, like the means of transportations that keep a tour in very literal motion. established,the
Take Justin Townes Earle. Since 2007, he has released five recordings of original songs that have increasingly fortified his musical identity among Americana audiences. That’s no meager feat, either, considering his father is the veteran songsmith Steve Earle.
But as he hits the road this spring, the younger Earle is a happy man. Is it because his road band includes longtime Calexico guitarist Paul Niehaus? Could it be the Memphis soul-saturated songs from Earle’s 2012 album Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now?
Well, the answer is partially yes in both cases. But Earle is also a chipper touring performer these days because the mounting success of his career has made him a higher class of road warrior.
In short, he now has a tour bus.
“Let me tell you, it was definitely a big change the day I went from driving the van most of the time to sitting on a bed in the back of the bus,” Earle said. “So we’re pretty comfortable these days. I couldn’t ask for more.”
Not a big deal, you say? Well, they sure beat the car trips Earle took to Lexington to play the long-defunct Lynagh’s Music Club more than a decade ago as a complete unknown to play alongside bluesmen Frank Schapp and the late Joey Broughman.
Ttimes have very much changed. An indie EP titled Yuma introduced Earle’s haunting country sound in 2007. The Good Life, which echoed more than a little of the swing and tenacity of giants like Hank Williams without ever sounding imitative, followed in 2008.
Then the grunt work started. The Good Life began a string of increasingly arresting albums for the Chicago indie label Bloodshot. Blues, Americana and severe rural folk inspirations took their places in Earle’s songs. But by the time Nothing’s Gonna Change came along, brassy Memphis soul was providing balance to Earle’s starker, darker songs.
“My songs are just kind of inspired by everyday life and everyday emotion,” Earle said. “It’s everywhere. I always carry around a little note pad. But on the songs I’ve been writing recently, I’ve been making a real effort to sit down to write – just as a practice. Before, I’ve been kind of a cocktail napkin writer for most of my life.
“I definitely had an idea of how I wanted the last record to sound. I’m way too controlling to not have an idea. When I’m writing, I start hearing production and other stuff. Plus, I’m good at surrounding myself with great people. As an untrained musician, I can get a little raw, a little off. So you’ve got to have people around you that kind of pull you back a little, because they’re often out in front where everyone can still see you. And that makes an incredible difference. Any artist that thinks their every idea is brilliant is a (expletive) jackass.”
Perhaps the inevitable and most unavoidable question in surveying Earle’s songs surrounds the inspiration of his father. How big a role does Steve Earle play on a Justin Townes Earle record? The answer is little if any. You certainly don’t hear it within the soul and blues influences that play out on Nothing’s Gonna Change, even though dad is referenced specifically as the lyrics unfold during the album opening Am I That Lonely Tonight?
But advice that father Earle, and other Texas-bred songwriters, offered did help shape the younger Earle’s writing.
“My father told me a few things about songwriting that stuck with me. He would say, ‘Stay honest’ and ‘Don’t write anything you don’t know.’ I really remember him and (veteran Lone Star songwriter) Guy Clark telling me, ‘When you write a song, make sure you want to play it for the next 30 years. You never know what will happen.’”
What will happen in the immediate future will be the recording of another album, which Earle said will probably expound on the soul charge of Nothing’s Gonna Change, with possible nods to the styles of Ray Charles and Ike Turner. The plan is have the record done and released by next winter. But he also doesn’t plan on rushing himself. The songs, he said, will surface in their own good time.
“Right now I’m in a good space. Mostly, for the past six years I’ve been in a good space to build. Plus, I’m only 31. So it’s a good time for me to be out working and doing all these things. But I still have a lot of songs in me. I don’t force them to come out.”
Justin Townes Earle with The Rooster’s Crow perform at 9 tonight at Buster’s Billiards and Backroom, 899 Manchester St. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 368-8871 or go to Bustersbb.com.