In this writer's opinion, the classic soundtrack of honky tonks, heartbreak, loves both lost and won and enough alcohol to fry a million livers, the music known as "real country," has been dead for years.
The country of old has progressed and twisted into a watered down concoction that has crossed over into the pop world; giving birth to pop country and leaving country a mere shadow of what it once was. It seems that of late the genre has turned its back on twang in order to welcome more profitable acts that have the power to draw in the teenage money spending portion of the population; Keith Urban, Jason Aldean, Carrie Underwood and "the sleeveless wonder" himself Kenny Chesney are what represent country music today. This, my friends, sadly is not a new trend.
The pop country beast has been growing for years; I spent my youth as a alternative and metal fan stuck in a rural Missouri high school whose student body believed that Garth Brooks was the second coming of Christ Himself. I was a man without a country.
The country music I followed secretly was the kind coming from my mother's stereo; Cash, Jones, Jennings, Nelson, Charlie Rich, Bobbie Gentry to name a few. In recent years, I had lost hope that someone would bring some country back into the world; I had resigned myself to listening to old albums for the barroom fix I wanted. Then, one-day hope arrived. Justin Townes Earle, son of outlaw country troubadour Steve Earle, has brought back traditional country music with his latest release, The Good Life.
The songs on The Good Life, all of which were penned in part or entirety by Earle, range from two- steppin' Bob Wills style ("Hard Livin'") to the funny heartbreak of classic Hank Sr. with the album's title track.
The young Mr. Earle seems to know his music history; he sticks to the formula (my woman left me, I'm lonesome, I'm drunk... rinse and repeat) and at times, his knowledge is more of a hindrance than a virtue. Now, there is nothing wrong with following a tried and true formula. It has worked for years but on the same token, there is nothing wrong with taking off the Stetson, giving your head a good scratch and thinking outside the box.
All of the songs on The Good Life are good, but there are a couple that border on greatness. They show that Justin is wise and capable well beyond his time on this rock. "Lone Pine Hill," for example, is a Civil War era set ballad from the point of view of a southern soldier longing for the peace and serenity of a single pine tree standing alone on a hill back home.
Another is "Who Am I To Say," a sad and complicated letter to someone (his father perhaps) and the addictions that he tried in vain to hide from his son, a son that seems to be headed down that same bumpy road. Take your pills and poison/ drink yourself to death from "Who Am I To Say" is a classic line that hits very close to home for many a father, husband or wife that has battled their own demons. Justin does a fantastic job of covering all the bases with The Good Life.
Those two tracks, along with the Steve Earle influenced "Far Away in Another Town" place Justin Earle at the forefront of young storytellers popping up in the garden at the edge of country. With all the album's good qualities (and there are several) one thing troubles me; it seems that the young Mr. Earle is unable or does not want to find his voice. The multiple personalities he shows from song to song sometime hamper the believability and conviction of the material.
That aside, I must say that the songs are solid and Justin's ability to tell a story with his music does show that he is, without a doubt, his father's son. There is no question in my mind that when Justin Townes Earle does settle on who he is, he will be a leader in the march to bring country back from the dead.
"South Georgia Sugar Babe"