- Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins
Justin Townes Earle has lived pretty fast, so you'll excuse him if he's become a homebody since turning 30 a year ago (Jan. 4). He's returned home to Nashville, where he's helping out his mother and "learning to be a better man," as he sings on "Look the Other Way" off his fourth album, last year's Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now.
"For some reason, I had a super-accelerated version of whatever this is," Earle says, apparently referring to his musician's lifestyle as he struggles with his absent girlfriend's dog. "My 20s were just insane. Anybody who lived through my 20s and wants to do it again is a moron."
The son of iconoclastic country rocker Steve Earle (who split from Justin's mom when he was 2), Justin grew up a weird, lonely kid who was into artists like Lead Belly while many of his peers savored 'N Sync. When he was 15, he dropped out of school to pursue music. "Family life and school had nothing more to offer me," he says.
By 17, he was touring the world, playing guitar in his dad's band, while cultivating a heroin addiction befitting the legacy of his recovering-addict father. Despite ever-present offers to produce his music, it wasn't until he'd gotten clean and gained some experience that he released his full-length debut, 2008's The Good Life.
"I was 25 before a record [2007's Yuma EP] came out. That's because every time I thought I had something that I thought was tangible, luckily I was able to step back and take enough of a look at it to go, 'Not quite yet,'" Earle says. "It was very important. I don't think I could've made [The Good Life] when I was offered my first deal with Lost Highway at 18."
From the start, Earle has distinguished himself from his father by exploring an entirely different scope of music that's less country and more blues-soul-rag influenced. Much of his music harks back to the spare roots sounds of the '30s and '40s, from dusty country & western to rootsy swing and parched Southern soul, particularly on Nothing's Gonna Change, which had a real Memphis feel.
He experienced a jump in stature between 2009's Midnight at the Movies and 2010's Harlem River Blues, his first to crack the Billboard Top 200. Later, he won the Americana Music Award's 2011 Song of the Year award for that album's title track. The audience experienced a similar jump.
"I remember four to five years ago, there were 60 people there; now a show in Los Angeles is 1,300. It's like, what the fuck?" he says. "I went from the 500-and-down to the 1,500-capacity club really fast. It's a big change."
He's without a label, working on his fifth album and living in Nashville, helping to pay off his mother's mortgage and move her into a better neighborhood. Free of his first album deal, Earle's hopeful for the future. The same might be said of his mindset.
"Life is only as good as our outlook on it. I'm a lot more comfortable in my skin and with my position in life now," he says. "I'm at a point where I'm over being angry at my childhood. I'm at a point in my life where I'm a little more accepting of my lot in life."
JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE
With Cory Chisel
8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 10
54 N. Orange Ave.