Archive for August, 2020

justin townes earle, 1982-2020

Justin Townes Earle. Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins.

“Don’t start telling me what to do,” Justin Townes Earle cautioned as a patron began barking out song requests during a 2013 performance at the long-since-demised Buster’s. “I’ve got this thing under control.”

When it came to the tools of his trade – namely, masterful songs of country, folk and roots-driven extract – Earle was absolutely in control. He may have been viewed by casual fans mostly as the son of country renegade Steve Earle. But in the course of a wildly prolific recording career that saw the release of nine assured albums in just over 12 years, Earle spoke with a narrative that found considerable room to roam outside the long shadows cast by his famous father and the iconic Texas songsmith he was named after, Townes Van Zandt.

Earle, who died unexpectedly yesterday, had an at-times Midwestern sensibility about his songs that balanced a more Southern slant on country storytelling. You could hear an undercurrent of Kansas City soul as he unfurled stories of near Dust Bowl-era intensity that wound up sounding several decades out of time. Though he looked younger than his 38 years, Earle wrote and sang with the quiet fire of someone far more sagely.

You heard modest pop acknowledgements in his lighter, less-Americana inclined songs. But Earle was no pop star, as reflected in such learned works as 2015’s exquisite solo acoustic affirmation “Looking for a Place to Land” and such sublime albums as the 2010  rural/metro mash-up “Harlem River Blues.” His music may have upheld his father’s songwriting heritage, but the younger Earle confidently distanced himself from all but the most obvious comparisons. “I am my father’s son,” he sang with reverence in “Mama’s Eyes” (from the 2009 album “Midnight at the Movies”). “I’ve never known when to shut up.”

While he had been away from Lexington stages for a few years, local audiences got to frequently witness Earle in performance as his career gathered steam. Memorable visits included two 2008 appearances separated by a mere five months – an April double bill with James McMurtry for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour and a September set of country/blues duets with harmonica accompanist Cory Younts at the Christ the King Oktoberfest. The latter was distinguished by a cover of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “My Starter Won’t Start This Morning.” Earle credited the late local bluesman Joey Broughman for teaching him the tune.

“I’m good at surrounding myself with great people,” Earle told me in an interview prior to the Buster’s concert. “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. That makes an incredible difference. Any artist that thinks their every idea is brilliant is a (expletive) jackass.”

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