Justin Townes Earle On Living With His Father’s Legacy And Creating His Own

Justin Townes Earle knows what a legacy feels like. As the son of cult alt-country legend Steve Earle, and namesake for his dad’s own hero Townes Van Zandt, it’s no surprise that Justin eventually opted to become a country troubadour himself, pursuing a sound that rides directly between the lines of those two iconic figures. After growing up raised by his single mother in the working-class neighborhoods of East Nashville, and battling through his own bout of struggles with the demons of addiction, Earle began touring and writing music when he was in high school, quickly ditching the confines of the classroom for a life on the road.

In 2007 he released his debut, a six-song EP called Yuma for Bloodshot Records, and proceeded to put out four more records for the Chicago-based label, steadily developing a graceful, silvery take on country songwriting that is wholly his own. After a pair of albums for Vagrant Records interrogating the struggles facing parents on Single Mothers (2014) and Absent Fathers (2015), Earle has signed with New West Records for his latest, finest record to date, Kids In The Street. For this album Earle is also working with an outside producer for the first time ever; he enlisted Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, M. Ward, Jenny Lewis) to provide finishing touches and little polishes to help refine his sound.

Now eight albums into his own career, and on the cusp of starting a family of his own, Earle has managed to mix an approximation of folk, blues, country and rock into a legacy of his own. In the spirit of love, family, and honoring history, we’re premiering a tender, classic country ballad off his record called “Faded Valentine.” Earle explained to me that after scoffing at the idea of a song tied to that holiday, he ended up writing one anyway, and did his best Lucinda Williams impression to sell the thing — consider it sold. Listen below and read more of our conversation about the changing landscape of his hometown of Nashville, growing up with a country musician as a father, and living up to his namesake.

Kids In The Streets was your first time working with an outside producer, what prompted that shift for you?

The purpose of art I believe is to grow, and we can only do so much growing within ourselves and within our hometown and inner circle, even though in Nashville we like to think we do everything better than everyone else. We knew there were talented musicians and producers elsewhere and needed in some ways to break tradition to find it again.

What was it that drew you to work with Mike Mogis in particular?

M. Ward records and Jenny Lewis record. He mixed a record called Hold Time for M. Ward that is sonically one of my favorite records ever [Editor’s note: This record is indeed perfect. Seek it out if you haven’t heard it.] I love everything about the way that record sounds. As well as the record he recorded with Jenny Lewis, Rabbit Fur Coat. There is a serious respect and attention paid to tradition in his records and he makes these sound that has an indie rock ‘f*ck you attitude’.

We’re premiering a track off the album today, “Faded Valentine,” which is such a classic, sweet tune, it reminds me of like a Guy Clark song, or an old honky-tonk track. What was the thought process behind writing that one?

It was the last song that I finished, I finished it while we were in the studio. I had gotten a request from a website that will remain nameless, to write a Valentines’ songs. At first I said that is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard and I didn’t do it in time. Then for some reason I got the idea in my head and was playing around with it and it slowly, I got the idea for “Faded Valentine.” I thought it was too simple at first, then I thought to myself what would Lucinda Williams do with this? Then I tried my best to make her impression of the song.

A lot of the songs here reference the lower-class neighborhoods in Nashville, what has it been like to watch that area gentrify and bring in tourism via shows like Nashville and renewed interest in the city? Or is that what you see happening? That was my impression when I finally visited the city last year.

I struggle seriously with the Nashville thing because the way that it happened. This definitely deals with an old Nashville and a Nashville that does not exist anymore. What happened there has happened so fast. It’s been mind-boggling how fast the city was able to completely change and I think as native Nashvillians, we take issue with these people who talk about Nashville’s newfound reputation. I heard one star of the show Nashville say that Nashville was enjoying its newfound reputation. What in the hell is wrong with the home to country music and the Grand Ole Opry? We didn’t need somebody to do that. Now we are the home of a stupid f*cking TV show and ugly cowboy boots.

Your records tend to deal with what some might consider fairly heavy subjects — your last two album were called Single Mothers and Absent Fathers. This new one, Kids In The Street is the obvious follow up given you’re about to start your own family. How has getting married and getting ready to start a family impacted your songwriting?

This is an easy answer, it has yet to. Because I do deal with deeper subjects, it takes a lot of thought and a lot of getting through things, to the other side of things and seeing it from different angles. So as far as my writing is concerned I’m still dealing with ages 18-28 right now. I didn’t get married until I was 31, and the baby ain’t here yet. So we will find out next album.

How do you balance writing about your personal life, especially given your famous dad? I think a lot of people read into the album title Absent Fathers, perhaps more than was intended.

People will always read more into things than there is actually there. No matter how bad the story is people want to make it bigger. Plain and simple. I was told by my father that our lives are in the open and everything is fair game. He’s used me for fodder in his songs, and I’ve used him for fodder in my songs. We’ve always been very open with everything, and open to criticism from the other side.

Is there a song on this record that you’re particularly excited to play for your child to hear at some point, when they’re old enough to understand?

I don’t know, I mean. I wonder if I will remember any of these songs by the time she is old enough? There is none that I can particularly think of on this record. I’ve actually been going over a lot of old bluesmen songs that they would play for children after church on Sunday. They would play blues songs to put the kids to bed and I’ve gathering those back up for her. Not sure how appropriate my music is for young people.

I love all the songs on the new record but “Champagne Corolla” is my favorite track far away. Was it a real car that you saw that sparked this track?

Well it was just the car when I was a kid. In 1990 – 1994 in Nashville, TN and I’m sure elsewhere it seemed like everywhere from 16-year-old girls to middle-aged, lower-level business men drove Corollas of Camrys. I think I used Corolla because it sounds better than Camry. I do remember the champagne part, I had a teacher when I was in 2nd grade who had a Champagne color Corolla that stuck in my head. I remember asking/telling her that her car is pink and she said No, it’s champagne.’ That stuck with me years later for some reason, probably one of the only things that stuck with me from her class.

After eight albums, do you feel completely confident in songwriting and performing? Is it still challenging to you or do you have to set out to find ways to challenge yourself at this point?

Performance-wise, it’s something that I see very much as a profession and something I very much enjoy. I feel like I have the performance part of it down, I do feel that. As a songwriter, on the art side of things, I don’t — and I hope that I never do feel 100% comfortable. I’ve never written a song that I didn’t seek outside assurance of before I thought it was done, from somebody. I always have an uneasy feeling about every song that I record, all the way up until the record comes out. I second guess myself and years later I see things and say ‘I could have done this.’ I just try to learn the lessons every time. It’s like riding a bike, you will remember how to do it all, but you have so many chaos factors involved in that process that could wipe you out.

You and your father have both been pretty open about struggles with substance addiction. Does music do something to help ease that battle? How do you see music and addiction as entwined? They seem to go together so often throughout history.

Substance addiction isn’t just with musicians but it is artists as a whole. When I look at my father, I see a man who was very sensitive to the world around him. I see that with a lot of artists and people with substance problems, that aren’t necessarily good at dealing with life. One doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the other. Drug use doesn’t enhance performance or music writing or anything else. There is just an acute sensitivity to truly artistic people. And that is me speaking of my father of course.

Do you have any advice for anyone who might be struggling with those issues that’s reading this?

Wow. It’s one of those things that isn’t easy to give advice on. I can say what my dad always said to me when he was cleaned up and I wasn’t, and it was: ‘Don’t die.’ That’s all you can say to somebody that has that problem.

There’s always the reference that your middle name is an homage to Townes Van Zandt, is that a reference you end up finding strength in or does it loom over you?

It is something that I’m proud to carry on, his name. I had to make a conscious effort early on in my career, and I did. I made a conscious effort to not allow my father or Townes to loom over me and the only way to do that was to separate myself from them. I didn’t do a show opening for my father until I made a name for myself. There were these lines that needed to be drawn and I had to realize I was never going to write like Steve Earle. He does a very specific thing and does it better than everybody. Same thing with Townes, as a songwriter you will have a miserable fucking life trying to write like him. I made a conscious effort to try and seek another path while definitely still having them as my base and inspiration. There is no keeping up with those two.

Kids In The Street is out 5/26 via New West Records. Pre-order it here.