The deep roots of Justin Earle's music


It's bad enough to be lumbered with the names of two music icons, but to have picked up their bad habits as well seems plain unfortunate. For Justin Townes Earle, though, it's all a part of making his music, he tells Tony Clayton-Lea

BEING LUMBERED WITH a readily identifiable surname - the kind of surname with which some people instantly conjure up a sense of expectation and anticipation - is bad enough; owning a middle name that also rings similar bells is akin to having the living embodiment of Johnny Cash's A Boy Called Suewrapped around your shoulders like a yoke, taunting you until you plead for mercy.

Justin Townes Earle - son of Steve, a highly regarded songwriter of the roots/folk persuasion and the man who gave his son as an extra albatross of sorts the first name of one of the best US singer-songwriters in the folk/roots genre, Townes Van Zandt - doesn't seem like the kind of man who worries about such matters. Not any more, anyway. The remnants of a misspent youth are there for all to see, if they wish: the 25-year-old eyes that have seen a bit too much in too short a time; the quietness of tone that comes with having experienced drug addiction and having lived to tell a more sombre, sober, salutary tale; the tattoos randomly placed on his hands, arms, neck, each one its own internal memoir, its own designer shorthand for a life less ordinary.

He says that if he were to concern himself with going through life with such a middle and last name he'd be a fool. He is honoured to carry the names his father gave him, he admits, but if he spent his life trying to live up to them, he'd be stone-cold miserable. And he's had enough of that, thank you very much.

He's been clean for more than four years, a change of mind and body brought about by respiratory failure following a binge that had him stay awake for 14 continuous days; a new, positively titled album, The Good Life, has been picking up plaudits all over the jukebox joint, the record's reverence of America's deep roots tradition fused with pre-war folk and acoustic blues forging a new approach to old methods. And yet, even through the bad times - especially through the bad times - it was the music that prevented Earle from falling apart. The way he tells it, it was virtually preordained that he follow in his father's footsteps.

"It can go either way, especially if you're living in someplace like Nashville," he says, nursing a cup of tea at Naul village's Séamus Ennis Cultural Centre some hours before taking to the stage. "You have a lot of kids that want to be musicians because there's so much music around, and you get some that don't want anything to do with the music. If I hadn't wanted anything to do with music? I might have become something pretty ordinary - maybe a plumber or a ditch digger. A good plumber is a very worthwhile thing to be, for certain, but I'm not so sure I'd have made a good one."

FROM THE AGE of 14, Earle started writing songs, call-and-answer-style blues tunes that were very much the rudimentary product of his stage of development. He subsequently hooked up with a songwriter called Scotty Melton, ended up in Tennessee and burrowed down into a lifestyle of songwriting, drinking and taking drugs. You could say he was willingly following in the footsteps of his father, himself a man once noted for his intake of on-the-shelf and under-the-counter substances.

When he was starting off, did he have a gauge of the quality of his writing? "I did not. I've always been the type of person that judges my worth by the reaction people give. I got such an okay enough reaction to my early shows that I thought I could probably do something with it. And then I just kept playing and playing; it took a few years to get the performance aspect figured out, but now I'm okay.

"Communicating with an audience is crucial; people aren't going to have a good time just because they paid €16 to come and see you. It's still a show, number one, and I always liked it that Bob Dylan said he was just a song and dance man. I'm kinda the same way - it's an all-inclusive thing.

"You gotta write the songs, you gotta make the music and then you have to perform them on stage in front of the people. You'll never see me at a gig staring at my shoes, being solemn. Did that come naturally? No, not really. I tend to act out the songs a lot - I'm an extremely impulsive, say-what-I-mean kinda person."

Son-father relationships blow hot and cold, generally speaking, and according to Earle there is no such thing as a teenager that listens to a single word their father says. He doesn't admit it as such, but you get the impression that there was once serious bad blood between him and his father (who he once described as a "big finger-wagger"); this was possibly not helped by being thrown out of his father's touring band when his self-destructive habits began to negatively impact on the performance and the music. The years have passed, though, and with the inevitable benefit of hindsight, Earle the younger appears to have made peace with the old man.

"Is it a blessing or a curse to have a famous singer-songwriting father? It's a blessing, of course, but it's a curse if you want to make it one. A lot of people say they don't want to have anything to do with their famous fathers and mothers, yet they draw constant attention to the fact that they are their kids. As it has been in the media coverage I've received, people are plenty good at pointing that out themselves, I don't need to worry about that aspect of my life. I let it go, it doesn't bother me, and I'm not one of those sons who wants to be disconnected with my father because he is who he is - that's ridiculous. My dad and I have our problems, but what family doesn't?"

What about the sense of expectation that comes with the territory of being the son of someone as praised as Steve Earle? Are sections of the audience looking for something of the father in the son, rather than looking at you as a singer-songwriter and person in your own right? "That happens," he says, as he readies himself to head off for a roll-your-own in the rain and a soundcheck, "but I've never had anyone come up to me and say they were disappointed that I didn't sound like my father. I've heard people saying they were expecting it, but at the end of the gigs I received no complaints."

The Good Lifeis released through Bloodshot Records.