Every time Justin Townes Earle put pen to paper to write a song, he left blood on the page. He left blood on the guitar strings. Maybe you couldn’t see it, but you could hear it.
Categorized as Americana, genre descriptors did him no justice. His vibe was punk, his look was a dapper version of Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in The Grapes Of Wrath, and his inspiration came from all across the American roots music landscape. There was as much Otis Redding or Rev. Gary Davis in his musical DNA as Ernest Tubb or Hank Williams. He was his own genre. He should have his own genre section in any good record store: blues, country, rock, pop, Justin Townes Earle.
Hardcore country bard Steve Earle did his son no favors naming him. Firstly, Justin had his father’s considerable reputation hanging over his head. Then Papa saddled him with Townes Van Zandt — only the greatest of brilliant, self-destructive Texan singer-songwriters — for a namesake.
“My mother hated Townes Van Zandt,” Earle explained to Rolling Stone last year. “My first name was supposed to be Townes; mother would not have it. She hated him because of the trouble that Dad and him got into, but she still played his music.”
Meaning upon entering the family business, Earle either had to live up to or live down his name. He lived past it. He became his own man well before his untimely death this past August. His discography — eight LPs and one EP — bears hardly-mute witness to this.
Watch his 2011 television debut on Late Night With David Letterman. Basketball-player tall, lanky, dapper in a hardly-contemporary brown suit and bowtie, the 29-year-old looked like a man out of time. With Jason Isbell providing slashing guitar, Earle delivered “Harlem River Blues,” an upbeat gospel tune … about suicide.
Good times come and they go
Even a good man’ll break
He’ll let his troubles bury him whole
Even though he knows what’s at stake
So I’m taking no chances
Carrying over while I’m still good in His grace
Sayin’ I’m no fool, mama
I know the difference between tempting and choosing my fate
Hunched over the microphone, fingers slapping at an old Recording King acoustic guitar, he was twitchy and wired. He found redemption in his drowning, staring at a point 1000 miles down the road. The effect was both jarring and charismatic — you can’t take your eyes off him. He was easily one of the most magnetic performers to grace Letterman’s show. Letterman gushes as he walks over at the song’s end: “Come back often!” he yelps.
Years later, Justin was in town. He stopped by The East Nashvillian offices for a photoshoot, intended to promote his 2019 LP, The Saint Of Lost Causes. (Unused then, this marks those photos’ first publication.) As editor Chuck Allen examined proofs for an upcoming Steve Earle cover, he asked Justin if he’d like a peek.
“That’s okay,” he grinned. “I think I’ve seen enough pictures of my dad.”
‟I went down the same road as my old man, I was younger then”
Justin Townes Earle was born January 4, 1982, to Steve Earle and Carol Anne Hunter. Steve eventually wasn’t around much, leaving Justin with his mother from age two. Once Steve got clean in 1994, the boy lived with him.
He later claimed to Rolling Stone he first shot heroin at age 12. He told that magazine’s Brian Hiatt, “Nothing had ever felt right in my life. But when that plunger went down, it was like a warm blanket wrapped over me. Everything was OK. It got un-OK, really fast. That first time, that’s the bitch. But we do have to realize, people who have drug problems are missing something inside them.”
He was candid about a frequently messy and chaotic childhood: “It goes way deeper than my father. I was a kid. I was abandoned. I was molested. I was beaten. You know, so, everybody’s lucky I’m not a serial killer. And so there’s something that will always be missing inside of me.”
These things couldn’t help but color his life. Which colored his music, despite protesting that his songs were not “diary entries.” (“Justin said a lot of things,” laughs Steve Poulton, the formidable Altered Statesman singer/songwriter/guitarist who became a steadying influence in Earle’s early solo career.)
But surely, living with Steve Earle meant great music, books, and guitars also lay around the house? Hearing Kurt Cobain perform “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged episode set the boy on a quest. It led to Daddy gently nudging his son towards Leadbelly, one of the song’s popularizers, and other folk-blues artists. Discovering these acoustic guitar titans influenced the development of Justin’s idiosyncratic fingerpicking style. This became his music’s lifelong pulse.
Poulton watched Steve Earle and The Dukes rehearse in a neighborhood garage as an ’80s teenager. (“That whole family is like, ‘You can’t tell me shit, by God!’” he laughs.) By the time of Justin’s teens, Poulton was back in town after several years away. He roomed with Joey Broughman, “a white boy from West Virginia that can play every instrument, but he was really into Rev. Gary Davis-style fingerpicking.”
An acquaintance of Justin’s dad, Broughman had worked with the Rolling Stones, John Lee Hooker, and many others. Their place became a sanctuary for young Justin when he’d “wild-out.” Poulton got to know him better than he could’ve during the latter’s childhood. Broughman became a musical mentor.
“In that time, information would not get traded so quickly,” says Poulton. “There weren’t a lot of white boys playin’ Skip James songs in open D tuning. There’s a whole handful of us that learned that shit from Joey and this guy Frank Schaap. So even though Justin is a son-of, some of that guitar style comes from Joey Broughman and Frankie. Scotty Melton (writer of songs Earle later recorded) also taught him a lot. Those were the guys that learned that shit off the records that Justin knew, beyond the Nashville thing. That’s a big part of that drop-thumb thing.”
‟I am my father’s son; we don’t see eye to eye,
and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve never tried
Those lessons stood him in good stead as Earle began working out his craft during a weekly slot at Springwater Supper Club. He told alt-country powerhouse No Depression his repertoire consisted of country blues greats like Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
“That was the goal,” he said in that 2017 interview. “I wanted to be an acoustic blues guy.”
After leaving school, he joined his father on the road, sometimes playing guitar and keyboards in The Dukes, sometimes working on the crew. Causing $10,000 damage to a Berlin hotel room while high got him fired. (“I’m still banned from Millennium hotels worldwide.”) Freed to follow his own path, he passed through two consecutive bands: The Swindlers and the Distributors.
“We were all into old records,” says Swindlers pianist Skylar Wilson. “Postwar blues, Leon Redbone, a lotta eclectic music. We weren’t listening to quote-unquote ‘popular music.’ We were into old-school stuff — old blues, old jug band music. And right in the middle of that came Justin, who was writing his own tunes that were right in that idiom. It was like, ‘WHOA!’ And they were heavy!”
Both bands shared some of the same personnel, a core group of friends who continued working with Earle for the rest of his career, in various capacities. According to Poulton, they all had music in their DNA.
“He was playing in that band The Swindlers with all these sons-of,” says Poulton, “like Cory Younts, the singer of Old Crow Medicine Show. One of the most brilliant musicians from West Nashville that I know, and one of the best entertainers, just the biggest sweetheart of a guy. His dad Bob Younts played drums with Mel Tillis and the Statesiders when they went onstage wearing $10,000 suits. Then there’s Skylar Wilson — his daddy, Wally, might be the best white blues piano player that the Southeast ever turned out. And you know Travis Nicholson, that guy’s a fuckin’ genius right there. He writes television shows and commercials (including a stint on Nashville), and his daddy (Gary Nicholson) played fucking guitar with everybody — Delbert McClinton, everybody!” Nicholson Senior’s also written songs for everyone from Willie Nelson to Ringo Starr.
“I moved over to drums for The Distributors,” says Wilson. “After we did The Swindlers’ thing for a little bit, Justin really started coming into his own as a writer. I think he figured out he wanted to be the songwriter, and he wanted to be the singer. The Distributors didn’t really go into the studio. I think we made some demos. God, I’d love to find those! But it was me and a couple of other guys in a small rock band setting, and Justin playing electric guitar for the first time since I’d known him. It was Springsteen-esque — Justin’s songs amplified, plugged-in.”
‟Well see, I get that feelin’ from time-to-time,
and it puts cold chills down the back of my neck
Recordings of these outfits are hard to find. A solitary Swindlers demo from 2001 has surfaced via YouTube, “Decimation Of A Southern Gentleman.”
“Man, one of my favorites of his, ever!” yelps Wilson. “Such a piece, such a great song!”
The track’s interesting, in both song and performance. It’s clearly one of Earle’s earliest attempts to grapple with his heritage:
No one wants to grow up to be their parents
And you know why?
‘Cos no one shows their parents no respect
The performance is country — there’s banjo, fiddle, and steel guitar — but the execution is hardly pure. The production borders on musique concrete, down to using three-spring reverb box crashes as percussion. This is country music as reimagined by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
“We never aspired to be straightforward country music,” says Wilson. “All of us were Southern. We grew up in the South. We all obviously had a profound respect for country music. But we didn’t try to do the one thing, even though we were adept at these various styles. We were just kinda being ourselves and letting (the band) be the iPod of our lives. And when Justin’s writing songs like ‘Decimation,’ we were like, ‘Whoa! We have a mouthpiece here! He’s the shit! Let’s back him up!’”
Even more interesting is a live solo performance of “Decimation,” also found on YouTube, described as Earle “playing his guts out for a crowd of seven at The Hideaway BBQ on June 17, 2007.” Looking more like his father circa Guitar Town than he had to have been comfortable with (albeit nowhere near as stocky), he is raw. He’s one big, gangly, exposed nerve, stomping around the stage with his acoustic, eventually howling the chorus off-mic as audibly as if he was still in the P.A.
I’m so far away from you, right now
I said, Papa
Your little boy’s fallen down
It’s the most arresting public therapy you’d have likely found in a Nashville club in those days.
Poulton was there. “I remember Steve showed up after. Justin borrowed a guitar from him to play the gig. Steve was just cold: ‘You asked to borrow a guitar to play your gig. You’ve played your gig, and I am here to collect the guitar.’ It was like, ‘Dude, can’t you tell him what a great show he just played?’”
Probably not. Earle told country website The Boot last year he’d intentionally carved his own path, and he and his father had only played a total of five shows together once he began his recording career.
“Even though it was tough, nobody will ever say that I rode my daddy’s coattails,” he said. “We separated it hard from the beginning because he wanted me to stand on my own.”
‟Oh well lord, I’m going home, back to that river
It was likely around this time Earle was working at Battle Tapes Recording on Yuma, an EP manufactured for $1000 borrowed from his then-girlfriend. Produced by Poulton, it’s the most naked recording Earle would do — just him, that fingerpicking seemingly ripped straight from some ancient Vocalion 78, and those already striking songs. It’s the sound of one man playing in a room, running through Appalachian spookiness (“The Ghost Of Virginia,” “I Don’t Care”), ragtime (“You Can’t Have”), country blues (“Let The Waters Rise”), and “A Desolate Angel Blues,” a mordant gospel which pre-echoes “Harlem River Blues”:
So gather round boys
This here’s the last time
You’re gonna see me in one piece
So put a kiss
Upon my lips oh boys
And then send me off to sleep
Then there’s the title track, a back porch strum about a 23-year-old committing suicide. It’s all in the details: Earle’s protagonist wakes up, quits work by telephone, dresses in “his daddy’s old suit with a second-hand shirt,” and goes to a bar. After two drinks, a bummed cigarette, and idle conversation about the weather, he pays his bill, walks out, and falls face down in the street. After weeping and picking himself up, he calls Mom from a payphone, tells her he wants to come home. He’s tired of the city and misses his ex-: “It’s been over a year and there ain’t nothing I fear so much as being alone.”
Produced by Steve Poulton
Feb. 8, 2007
(Re-released by Bloodshot Records, 2008 & 2013)
After hanging up without saying goodbye, he buys a postcard, signing it “Fare Thee Well,” and mailing it home to Yuma. The middle-eight pinpoints his grief’s source:
Lookin’ back I’d say
It wasn’t so much the girl
As it was the booze and the dope
And the way he took the weight of the world
Up upon his shoulders
In the coda, he steps on a ledge, smiling as he crashes through an Oldsmobile 98’s windshield.
He turned his back onto the world and he fell back to earth again
And he lay there dying on a cold winter’s day/All alone, all alone.
This was the last time Earle would be so sonically naked, but not emotionally so. Yuma’s plaintive empathy suggested a painful familiarity with the song’s scenario. These emotions would be as much a baseline to all his music as the distinctive clawhammer strumming.
Which would not be the only things Yuma introduced to the world. “The photographer who still takes all my pictures, Joshua Black Wilkins, he did all the formatting for it,” Earle explained to Rolling Stone. “‘So, you wanna be Justin Townes Earle, right?’ I was like, ‘No, I’m Justin Earle.’ He goes, ‘No, you’re Justin Townes Earle.’ I said, ‘You think I should do it all?’ He said, ‘I don’t care what you want — that’s what I’m printing on it!’ [laughs] So actually Joshua Black Wilkins made me Justin Townes Earle over Justin Earle.”
‟Now if I walk down the street, everybody knows my name
Prestige alt-country label Bloodshot Records snapped him up not long after Yuma’s release, making him labelmates with such heavyweights as Ryan Adams, The Old 97s, and Neko Case. His debut full-length, The Good Life, followed in the spring of 2008. He was 26 years old.
It was co-produced by Poulton and roots polymath R.S. Field, who’d produced, composed, and/or played with everyone from Omar & the Howlers to Buddy Guy to Billy Joe Shaver to John Prine. Tracking was done at House Of David Studios, a room dripping with mojo.
“There’s all kindsa magic in that place that you can’t miss,” says Poulton. “Just being there makes you wanna chin up. People don’t play bad there. People play at the top of their game in that building. And Bobby Fields? That man is a genius. He taught me how to make records. There were some pieces of The Good Life that were already done when Bobby came in that we had to incorporate because they were good versions of the songs. It was hard to get them to sit together on a record sonically, tracks with three different drummers and stuff. We made it work.”
Fields was friends with Earle’s then-manager, Traci Thomas. He feels “someone on the financial totem pole” at Bloodshot felt the project required an experienced guiding hand.
“What was cool about it was they’d been working on it already,” says Fields. “Justin had the songs and the concept of not so much what he wanted to do, but the things he didn’t want to do. He had all these great musicians, and he could play and sing so great. They had it all happening already.”
The Good Life
Produced by R.S. Field • Steve Poulton
Released: March 25, 2008
There was, indeed, a core crew of musicians, engineers, and artists who were constants through his career. Generally, Cory Younts provided anything from mandolin to banjo to harmonica to piano, Bryan Owings played drums, Joshua Hedley was on fiddle, and Skylar Wilson played most of the keyboards. Pete Finney or Chris Scruggs manned steel guitar before Paul Niehaus took over from the third album, Harlem River Blues, onward. Wilson co-produced the latter and follow-up Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now with Earle. Joshua Black Wilkins took every release’s cover photo.
Adam Bednarik, whose relationship with Earle began with a Swindlers demo session on which he assisted in recording school, engineered all but one of the records. He eventually co-produced Single Mothers, Absent Fathers, and The Saint Of Lost Causes. He also became Earle’s bassist by the end. From start to finish, their recording methodology remained the same.
“Every album that I ever did with Justin was recorded with a live band,” he said. “We would base the take off of his vocal performance and his guitar playing, and we did not go back and punch in Justin or make any fixes. Everything we did was live.”
“The mics were definitely bleeding at the House Of David,” muses Fields. “But if somebody needed to recut or punch in their part and they were sharing a mic, they both had to redo their performance. On a couple of songs on both albums, Justin would just do another performance of his guitar and vocal, if he wasn’t happy with what he’d done but liked the rest of the track.”
Midnight at the Movies
Produced by R.S. Field • Steve Poulton
Released: March 3, 2009
Poulton feels Earle worked with him through those early records because he would talk to him straight. “I’d tell him, ‘Man, let’s argue about the fact that you don’t have ten good songs,’” he says. “‘You have seven. But wait, there’s this other one that has an awesome riff, and you’ve got this other one. You need to finish that.’ ‘Nah, that’s a throwaway song.’ [laughs] Then we’d argue to the point where it becomes, ‘I dunno. You’re asking me to tell you what I’m hearing. Let me do my job!’”
Indicative of this dynamic: “Midnight At The Movies.” Basically “one verse and this cool guitar riff” when presented to Poulton. “I told him, ‘Nah, man. You need to finish that.’ We argued about that all day long. Guess what? It’s the title track of the album!”
‟I’ve crossed lines and roads and wandering rivers
just looking for a place to land
The Good Life brought the band format back to his music, broadening the palate considerably, not just in instrumental color, but stylistically. There’s ragtime infused with a tinge of boogie-woogie and a touch of the gypsy caravan (opener “Hard Livin’”). A strong dose of hardcore 1950s, Ernest Tubb/Ray Price honky-tonk enters the picture (the title track, “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome,” “Lonesome and You,” “Ain’t Glad I’m Leavin’”). You get one pure Appalachian holler (“Lone Pine Hill”), and some rhumba-flavored New Orleans R&B (“South Georgia Sugar Babe”). But there are also some ballads (“Who Am I To Say,” “Turn Out My Lights,” “Far Away In Another Town”) which ooze an aching vulnerability.
By Midnight At The Movies, some Philly soul seasons that fleshed-out “verse and cool guitar riff.” The lyric displayed his work’s absorption of more nuance and shade. Acoustic blues returned slightly with “They Killed John Henry,” his recasting of the man vs. machine folk classic.
The first of his Quixotic covers emerges, Paul Westerberg’s “Can’t Hardly Wait.” You can’t beat The Replacements at their own raunch ‘n’ roll game unless you do as Earle does — transform it into a mountain jamboree strummer.
The real jaw-dropper is “Mama’s Eyes,” his first instant classic. He looks in the mirror, sees his father looking back — the last person he wants to be. He realizes this comes down to his actions. Then he looks further and sees his mother’s eyes staring back with the same kindness. “That’s the only thing you’ve got that feels redeeming,” he told Rolling Stone. Even Papa Steve had to admit the power of that one. Earle recalled his father watching side-stage as he performed it solo at the Ryman Auditorium. “I remember walking offstage and he goes, ‘“Mama’s Eyes,” that’s a good song.’”
Harlem River Blues
Produced by Justin Townes Earle • Skylar Wilson
Released: Sept. 13, 2010
A move to New York City brought some urban toughness, stronger R&B/soul influences, and plenty of Jason Isbell’s electric guitar to Harlem River Blues. What do you think Gotham’s impact was with titles like “One More Night In Brooklyn” and “Workin’ For The M.T.A.?” The latter and “Wanderin’” are as folky as Earle can get, ironically. “Move Over Mama” is rockabilly enough that Sam Phillips likely rose from his grave and shoved Skylar Wilson aside at the control board. But “Slippin’ And Slidin’” (not the Little Richard classic) and “Christchurch Woman” firmly plant JTE’s feet in soul music turf, after the Staples Singers-sing-about-suicide testifying of the title track. He was doing something right — “Harlem River Blues” netted him the Song Of The Year trophy at 2011’s Americana Music Awards.
Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
Produced by Justin Townes Earle • Skylar Wilson
Release date: March 26, 2012
“Hear my father on the radio singing take me home again,” are the first words ringing from his final Bloodshot release, 2012’s Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now.
“300 miles from the Carolina coast and I’m skin and bones again,” he continues, intoning an increasingly desolate lyric over spare Memphis soul. The Stax voltage is amped higher on the considerably more uptempo second track, “Look The Other Way,” which begins “Mama I’m hurting, in the worst way/I got no money in my pocket, no place to stay.”
Family ties were clearly still on his mind. Those soul influences are now in charge. His drawl is all but gone
‟Aren’t you tired of starting fires and burning pictures?
I have now learned that you can never trust a bunch of babies that ain’t worked a day in their lives,” Earle ranted from Twitter on 12/15/13. “… The only thing I hate about business is that it’s frowned upon to pistol whip the competition … . Just found out I won’t be making a record for a while due to a bunch of pussies in an office.”
It surfaced that his Bloodshot deal ended with Nothing, and he’d forged a link with Communion Records, a British indie co-owned by keyboardist Ben Lovett of millennial banjo fetishists Mumford & Sons. When he looked at the fine print after signing, he’d discovered he’d agreed to write 30 songs that the label would cherry-pick into one album.
That was not gonna work for Earle’s temperament. Bednarik verified his standard M.O.: He always wrote in 10 song batches, intended for whatever album on which he was working. And he strictly controlled the treasures it would hold. As he tweeted three days later, “Like I would ever let some little twit fucking comb through my work!”
Produced by Adam Bednarik • Justin Townes Earle
Vagrant Records, Loose Music
Released: Sept. 9, 2014
Produced by Adam Bednarik • Justin Townes Earle
Vagrant Records, Loose Music
Released: Jan. 13, 2015
He resurfaced in September 2014 with Single Mothers on prestige California indie Vagrant Records. Absent Fathers followed in January 2015. Indeed, these were companion albums recorded simultaneously, seemingly dealing with his mother and her struggles, then with a troubled paternal relationship.
The cover art bookended to underline the intent: Models clearly intended to portray the younger Justin and his mother on the first album, then the real thing now on the second. Musically, the R&B/blues/soul elements are firmly in place, electric guitars slashing and barking all the way through. Still, Paul Niehaus’ pedal steel wails through both records like an avatar for whatever pain Earle was carrying.
These would be his sole Vagrant releases. When he resurfaced on New West Records in 2017 with Kids In The Street, it appeared he was both summing up all he had done to date and shaking up everything. Only Niehaus, Wilkins, and Bednarik (in an “A&R” role) carried over from the rest of Earle’s oeuvre.
Kids in the Street
Produced by Mike Mogis
New West Records
Released: May 26, 2017
Otherwise? New studio in a new town (Lincoln, Nebraska’s Presto! Recording), with a new producer (Mike Mogis of Saddle Creek Records/Bright Eyes fame, who also multitracked much of the instrumentation), and new players laying down what parts Mogis didn’t.
The country (“What’s She Crying For”) and folk (the title track) elements were back in full, although R&B remained the basic pulse, alongside the star’s relaxed wail and expert fingerpicking. Then there’s the opening kick of “Champagne Corolla,” clearly Earle’s Chuck Berry homage, though Mogis’ production turns it into more of a New Orleans second-line rave-up. Then there’s “Maybe A Moment,” a tale of two small-town teenage girls hitchhiking to a rock show in another town, picked up by a dubious driver.
“That song is more autobiographical than any other,” he told New Zealand website The Spinoff. “I’m not saying I was the one driving the car, but we definitely used to go to Memphis a lot as kids for punk rock shows. My neighborhood growing up was mostly hard-working people and single parents, so we had a lot of time to run wild. I was very lucky to survive my teen years, my twenties, and I was definitely lucky to survive from nine years old to 13.”
The Saint of Lost Causes
Produced by Adam Bednarik • Justin Townes Earle
New West Records
Released: May 24, 2019
His final album, 2019’s The Saint Of Lost Causes, was his most spare. Key personnel were back in a smaller combo – Younts, Niehaus, Joe V. McMahan on guitar, and Bednarik now manning bass in addition to producing with Earle and engineering. The sound was leaner, meaner. The title track’s minor-key swamp rock seemingly served to warn that this would be difficult listening:
For so long, I was like a wounded hound
Backed into a chain-link fence
The world at large was just a big, mean kid
Poking me through the fence with a stick
From there, Earle serves up blues-bordering-on-rockabilly with dirty guitars (“Ain’t Got No Money,” “Flint City Shake It”), haunted country as only he could do it (“Mornings In Memphis,” “Frightened By The Sound,” “Over Alameda”), and raw gospel (“Don’t Drink The Water”). Throughout, he sounds more pained and driven than he ever had, like that proverbial hellhound had turned its attention away from Robert Johnson. This was his darkest record.
‟I know the difference between tempting and choosing my fate
Something had changed by the time Earle had reached Kids In The Street. He was clean, living in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Jennifer and young daughter Etta St. James. The New West debut was the most upbeat record of his career. He toured behind it with Niehaus augmenting The Sadies. Considering the garage-centric Canadian band’s seemingly chameleonic ability to play any roots-musical style — the best of any band this side of NRBQ — it was the perfect pairing for Earle’s own genre-hopping. If he had to shake everything up, as Kids seemed to symbolize, The Sadies were the perfect stewards for the new journey. Plus, if anyone knew what it was to be a son-of, it would be the band’s Dallas and Travis Good: Their father Bruce and uncles Brian and Larry were the nucleus of prime Canadian country outfit, The Good Brothers. For his part, Earle claimed to Foo Fighters member Chris Shiflett in a 2017 edition of his Walking The Floor podcast that he was keeping his addictions at arm’s length via a “marijuana maintenance program.”
“We’d been warned a few times, ‘Hey, can you guys be careful with the drinking?’” recalled Sadies bassist Sean Dean. “We understood there was always the possibility of self-destruction.”
He had struggled on-and-off with addiction since that first shot at age 12, though he told Shiflett the worst of it ended once he began his recording career.
“When I started making records, I was sober,” he explained. “I got all my craziness out of the way as a coffeehouse musician and a roadie.”
He had a few relapses along the way, most notably during 2010’s relentless Harlem River Blues tour. His drinking got unwieldy to the point he and an Indianapolis club owner got into a scrap that led to Earle cooling his heels in jail overnight. He’d seen the inside of many a rehab facility and maintained extended periods of sobriety after.
He attributed his early troubles to his chaotic childhood. “I think I was dealing with a lot of things I didn’t know how to deal with, between my father leaving and my mother bringing in a slew of drunken bastard boyfriends to live with us for a little while,” he told Rolling Stone in 2012. “By the time I emerged from my parents’ household at 15 years old, I was a very fucked-up kid. I discovered very fast that my way of doing things was going to get me in trouble, and I kept going with it, because I believed the myth for a long time, and I believed I had to destroy myself to make great art.”
The following year, playing solo in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Earle felt obliged to lecture his audience on the need for a more empathetic method of dealing with addiction while introducing “White Gardenias,” a song he’d written about Billie Holiday. He felt we asked addicts the wrong question.
“We ask, ‘What is wrong with you?’” he says in the course of a YouTube clip documenting the moment. “Now wouldn’t you want to knock somebody’s teeth down their throat if they asked you that question? It’s a shitty, uneducated, stupid question. So somebody who shoots dope or gets too drunk or cuts themselves, they hurt. The problem is, they hurt. So you don’t ask them, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ You ask, ‘Why do you hurt?’ And it’s not gonna solve anything, but it’ll get you closer to the heart of the matter than locking them up, making them feel like degenerates, and thinking you’re better than them. We’re all humans. Just ask them why they hurt.”
‟Tell my mama I love her, tell my father I tried,
give my money to my baby to spend
Perhaps someone needed to ask Earle why he hurt?
“It’s such a weird thing to think about, these last seven months,” muses The Sadies’ Sean Dean. “It makes me sad, thinking maybe he was really lonely. He was probably thinking, ‘I don’t have the ability to make people happy with my music, or making my living as a musician.’ That alone, I know that would devastate him. That would slay him, not being able to fulfill dates.”
Bednarik says Earle had been working on material recently, thinking ahead to the next album. But he was notorious for endlessly belaboring his material, constantly editing almost until he walked onto the studio floor, and only writing what the album required. Hence, there are no leftover songs to discover, and it’s likely this material will never surface in a releasable form. The Saint Of Lost Causes may be the last music we will hear from Justin Townes Earle.
He was found dead during a wellness check by Metro Nashville Police at his apartment on Aug. 20, 2020. An MNPD spokesman confirmed the following Tuesday the cause of death was a “probable drug overdose.” He was 38.
“We made this great music together,” says Poulton. “Whatever happens, nobody can take your songs and your recorded music away from you. Make that the best fucking shit that you did. Yeah, that’s great, getting your ya-ya’s out and rockin’ the room! But what about these records?! That was always our attitude. Shows come and go. Lovers? Those are like drummers and jobs — it takes a really good one to be better than nothing at all. Keep moving. But these records? That’s all that lasts.”
Steve Earle and The Dukes entered the studio to record an album of Justin Townes Earle’s songs in October. It will be released in January, the month his son would have turned 39. The album will place his son alongside Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, recipients of previous Steve Earle tribute albums. 100 percent of all advances and royalties go into a trust for his granddaughter via Justin, Etta St. James Earle.
“Harlem River Blues,” from the forthcoming album, J.T., by Steve Earle & The Dukes. The album will be released digitally on what would have been Justin’s 39th birthday, January 4, 2021, via New West Records.
As we were finishing the layout for this story, the Tennessee Department of Health revealed Earle died due to “acute combined drug toxicity.”
This story on JTE’s musical journey isn’t presented as a cautionary tale. If anything, we hope that it sheds light on just how cunning, baffling, and powerful addiction can be.
Shortly after the report was made public, a post was made to JTE’s Facebook page, which we feel compelled to include here in full:
“Three months after we lost Justin, the medical examiner has concluded that the cause of his death was an accidental drug overdose. Next to alcohol and cocaine, the autopsy report revealed traces of fentanyl, indicating that usage of fentanyl-laced cocaine resulted in an overdose.
Even though Justin was very outspoken and concerned about the opioid epidemic and the dangers of the “legal” drugs fed by the pharmaceutical companies, he became the victim of a deadly dose of fentanyl. Illicit drugs laced with fentanyl are causing an enormous rise in overdoses, turning cocaine usage into an even deadlier habit. It only takes a few salt-sized granules of fentanyl to cause an overdose. And in most cases, it happens so fast that intervention likely could not reverse it.
Although legal, and available nearly everywhere, alcohol is a psychoactive, neurotoxic, addictive narcotic. The effects of continual, long-term alcohol intake is deadly. Addiction is a disease, and there are many avenues and treatments to become and stay free from alcohol and drug usage.
If you or a loved one are struggling with substance addiction, please know that you’re not alone and reach out for help.
Don’t lose hope. With love and health, Team JTE”