Thursday, August 09, 2007

My Justin Townes Earle article

I'm working on publishing an article on Justin Townes Earle, but in the meantime went ahead and wrote up something to work from. Let me know what y'all think:

You can learn a lot about Justin Townes Earle just by looking at his tattoos. There’s the hammer and sickle on his right bicep, which he displays when asked about his politics. There’s “Townes,” his middle name, emblazoned in script across his chest. And on his left wrist there’s the word “Yuma,” the name of his recent self-released debut CD, looking surprisingly good despite the fact that he just had it done a few nights before in Athens, Ga.

“I use Burt’s Bees Wax Rescue Ointment to heal my tattoos,” he says, as he sits on the tail gate of his pickup truck behind The Hideaway, a barbeque joint/country bar in Raleigh, N.C. “I have about a week of healing if I use Vitamin A&D Ointment but with the Burt’s Bees Wax it’s two to three days and it’s done.“

Earle is back in North Carolina on a hot July evening as the opener for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, who have just taken the stage and are doing their best to drown out his conversation. The pickup truck is his version of a touring van, with just enough room for a few guitars, a couple of suitcases, a small amp, a ukulele, and a ukulele player named Steve Poulton. Originally his booking agent wanted him to bring a full backing band, but told him he would only get $200 to $250 per night, so he decided to perform as a duo.

Though the crowd is clearly Isbell’s, there’s a sizable contingent there, partly because they know and love his music, and partly because they know and love the music of his father, Steve Earle. The fact that Townes Van Zandt is the inspiration for that middle name means that he’s got a double whammy to live up to musically. Earle, unlike the progeny of other famous entertainers, doesn’t like trumpeting his lineage, but neither is he running away from it. Earlier in the summer he hit the road with Jubal Lee Young, son of songwriter Steve Young (“Seven Bridges Road) on a tour that was billed as a sort of “young guns” of country music, a characterization that, in retrospect, made him uncomfortable.

“I learned that a long time ago because the people are going to come and they’re going to buy your records, first of all out of pure curiosity and then if you’re any good they become fans and they keep coming back,” he says.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that I’m Steve Earle’s son, and so I don’t see the point in telling anybody.”

According to Earle, his famous father was less of an influence than East Tennessee singer-songwriter and family friend Scotty Melton, with whom Earle lived and toured as a teen.

“I tried to learn from listening to my dad and listening to Townes and some of them but I really needed somebody who wasn’t my father to be able to tell me, to really instruct me on what was going on,” he says. “And teach me that a song wasn’t about a diary entry, it was about a thesis.”

Love is a common theme in his folksy, bluesy acoustic yarns, but it’s always twisted and conflicted, like the story of the Christian in “Let the Waters Rise, “ who doesn’t have the guts to kill his cheating woman, so he prays for a flood to wash her away. Or the shattered and suicidal protagonist of “Yuma,” who thinks of returning home to that town before finding a different solution for his broken heart. Earle’s distinctive, rhythmic guitar strumming tends to trick audience members, who declare that he has to be somehow looping a backing track while he plays.

“I call it a sleight of hand guitar playing because every time I play a show some body accuses me of having a sampler,” he says. Guitar-wise he cites singer-songwriters like his aunt, Stacey Earle, and Malcolm Holcombe.

One thing you won’t hear at a Justin Earle concert is politics, despite that hammer and sickle on his arm.

“I think that when people come out to shows they want to have a good time, and reminding them of what’s going on in the world is not my best suit,” he says. “If I write a song about my politics I prefer to write it to a sense where a Communist could think it’s about him, and a Republican could think it’s about him. I don’t have a problem with Republicans who buy my records!”

1 comment:

Alex said...

Good stuff.