No Particular Reason for Justin Townes Earle
Singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle was going to scrap Single Mothers after a record label squabble left the album in limbo. He recorded the follow-up, the equally poignant Absent Fathers, intending to put it out instead. But at the behest of his wife, Earle decided to release Single Mothers and both albums came out a few months apart from one another to wide acclaim. The son of outlaw country hero Steve Earle phoned us from his home outside of Portland, Oregon where he says he feels like “a refugee” given the current political climate. “I have several friends who have bailed this way. You don’t see Trump/Pence anything around here.”
Do you remember when you wrote your first song?
I know the first song I actually finished writing because I still play it. It was one of those rarities. I still have songs from that period that lasted. There are maybe ten out of hundreds that I wrote. I started writing poetry and short stories. One of the few things I liked to pay attention to in school was creative writing. By the time I was 12 I had started writing my own songs. I still have all those old notebooks. They’re pretty funny to look at now.
What was it like growing up in Nashville?
There’s two worlds — there’s a music world and there’s a working class world that’s filled with all kinds of bitter, middle aged women who are raising kids on their own because a crazy dreamer musician knocked them up and ran off. There was an aversion to being a musician. It was the last thing I was going to be. Musicians had screwed up everything around me. In everybody’s house, there was a guitar and some connection to country or the whole blues and jazz thing on the north side. You couldn’t avoid music and it was from the beginning, a very big interest to me.
How’d you develop such an eclectic sound?
I attribute that to my father. No matter how present he was in my life physically, he always sent me music while I was growing up. When I was seven and most people my age were listening to kids’ music, I owned every AC/DC record on cassette tape. I remember being out with friends one day and we were standing in the parking lot of a gas station on 12th Avenue in Nashville. It’s long gone now. This Cadillac pulled out. These two old black guys in white suits and white hats had Al Green “I’m So Tired of Being Alone” bumping on their system. I was 11 and I knew my taste would go in that direction. When I went home and told my mom had an interest in Al Green it blew her mind. I think hip-hop had a lot to do with that too because guys like Dr. De harvested from all over the place.
What was it like knowing that critics would compare your songs to your father’s?
That was one thing that my dad always tried to talk about. He looked at me one day and said, “You don’t get the chance to make bad records. You don’t get the chance to stumble. You need to come out of the door swinging and keep swinging.” He was being a bit dramatic there but people were going to be dissecting my songs. I wasn’t going to get away with “I love that catchy little melody.” Critics would pair everything down from the music to every little word. I knew that but I have an “I’ll show them mentality” from my father too.
He’s said he doesn’t read reviews any more.
That’s what I always tell everybody. I tell people not to read reviews, especially when you’re on the road. Don’t read reviews of the live shows. We have to remember that opinions are like assholes.
Your first record was called “Yuma.” Did the city inspire it?
I was on the road, and I had just passed through Yuma. I was coming up with a story and what I saw fit with the story. There’s not particular reason why Yuma. But there’s no particular reason why in a lot of my songs. I like to be reality based, though I might get off the rails every once in a while.
Talk about the songs on Single Mothers and Absent Fathers. You started to write the tracks during one particular session?
They were both written separately to be records. They’ve all been written to be like that. I don’t have extra songs. Everything that I’ve written pretty much everybody has. That’s the way I operate. Single Mothers was written and slated to go to one record label. Some complications arose and I took it to another label. It took some time to get everything sorted out so in the meantime I wrote Absent Fathers, also to be a record. The plan was that Absent Fathers was going to come out and Single Mothers was going to be shelved. I was just sick of it by that point. My wife talked me into putting it out. I decided to put them out semi-together, a couple of months apart.
At what point did you know there would be a theme to the album?
There’s always a loose theme I’m shooting for. Midnight at the Movies was based around a Gregory Corso book. I got some imagery from that book. Harlem River Blues is based on the Southern movement to the North. There’s a theme that runs it but it’s not like it’s telling the stories of one thing. It’s telling the story of one area.
What pushed you in this direction?
I think it’s more about figuring about how to not explore those themes. They’re so central to everybody. You’re going for the mother and father angle and that’s true, but it’s something we all have. It’s essential to who we are and what we’ve become.
Have you started to think about the next album yet?
I just finished recording a new record. I went to Nebraska and spent two works in Nebraska with Mike Mogis to make this record. It was a great experience. I’m really excited about it. I’m back to my bluesier or countrier roots. I haven’t worked with producers very often at all. It was an interesting thing working with somebody from outside my group. That’s the other thing. When you’re from Nashville, why would you fly a producer into Nashville? That’s like flying a hooker into Vegas. His studio is a great space. It’s a little compound that he owns with Connor. It’s nice.
Photo by Joshua Black-Wilkins