Everyone knows someone like Justin Townes Earle. Not the musical son of a famous country-rock iconoclast, Steve Earle, but rather the kind of fellow who knows just what to say to cut you to the bone.
"I do have an ability I've gotten from my father to be rather callous," says the 33-year-old Earle, who last month released his seventh album of downbeat sepia-tinged country roots, Absent Fathers. "I've found the difference is to be tactful if you're going to be callous."
He speaks about one of the album's highlights, "Why." The little two-and-half-minute track is haunted by peals of country & western pedal steel and made hazy with smoke from a relationship's self-immolation. Earle's "slumped against the door frame, just waiting for you to leave before I cry," as he wonders, "Why can't I tell you a thing and why do you always think the worst of me?"
Though Earle insists his songs are more composite than autobiography, he discloses that this one, which begins with the admission "maybe it's a blessing, a blessing in disguise," was taken from his last relationship before meeting his wife. The song's finale ends in a snarl: "Darling, I just don't understand what you think you're going to find in a man."
"I'm not one of those people that's going to tell somebody a candy-coated fairy tale," he says. "I find the truth is much more devastating, and I think we react better to devastation than we do anything. That song is just, you know, just baring your chest."
The album is the counterpart of Earle's September release, Single Mothers, on Vagrant Records. The two discs follow a nearly unprecedented two-and-a-half-year break between albums as the typically prolific, album-a-year Earle jumped from beloved Chicago indie Bloodshot Records to London label Communion, founded by members of British folk rockers Mumford & Sons and Bear's Den.
The abortive deal failed to produce an album and cost him 18 months. He was thus forced into a stressful, quick turnaround on the last two records. Both albums were recorded in the same May sessions for a potential double album, which Earle reconsidered and decided to release separately. Earle – who, like his (famously absent) father, prefers to record quickly to keep things fresh – was frustrated by the long delay, even if it did afford him extra writing time.
"After going from a wonderfully easy working relationship with Bloodshot to a bunch of prenatal nitwits that don't know what they're doing – it put quite a rush on this record," Earle says.
While both albums are about family and connection, they offer subtly different perspectives, according to Earle. Though conceived and ultimately recorded at the same time, they were written at different times from different perspectives.
"The first record, Single Mothers, very much represents the place and time, which was realizing that for many years or all my life, I haven't been a very happy person, and reflects that," Earle says.
Yet because of the troubles with Communion, his life had changed by the time he undertook Absent Fathers.
"Basically these records should've been out a year or more ago," he continues. "By the time I ended up writing the second part of the record, a lot had changed. I was living in the West; I was married. All of a sudden. I was definitely writing from a different point of view and a different standing. Not that it solved all the problems by any stretch of the imagination. But that's not what it's about, I guess."