By Danny R. Phillips
Standing in the shadow of a legendary father can be hard if not impossible, just ask Julian Lennon. However, Justin Townes Earle, son of outlaw country hero Steve Earle, seems to be pulling it off. The young Mr. Earle's latest release, The Good Life, is unlike the so-called country that is dominating the charts. At 26, Justin is a throwback to the days of honky-tonks, heart on your sleeve songwriting and living on the road. I spoke to Justin as he was on his way to pay a speeding ticket. "It's cool" he joked, "the record company pays for my tickets, it's written into my contract."
D: When did you first become interested in music?
I was around 13 or 14. It was around the time Nirvana put out that unplugged record and they did that Leadbelly song (Where did you sleep last night?) That's where it all kinda changed for me.
D: I really didn't expect for Nirvana to cover a song like that.
Well, neither did I. But looking back it all made sense when you look at the way Kurt wrote. He had one foot forward and one foot back with the early songwriters much like Springsteen did.
D: Did the fact that your Dad is a musician have much bearing on you becoming a musician?
Yeah, sure it did. I can't say whether or not I'd be doing this if he wasn't but I'd like to think I would be.
D: Many of the songs on The Good Life seem very personal. Do you worry about putting too much of yourself out there?
No, I don't really worry about stuff like that, I'm not a bashful person in the first place. If people want to analyze me that fine but I'll tell you right now, all the analysis of me out there are wrong. There's not one writer out there that's got it right. Take for example "Who Am I To Say." Everyone seems to love that one. They say, "Well, that song is obviously about your father" but I obviously say girl at the end so it's probably not about my father.
D: Is it about any specific girl?
It's a composite character but it is heavily based in one specific person. Ya know, it does have loose fittings from other people but it's mainly about one woman. Hell, I wouldn't even call her a woman, she's a girl and still acts like one to this day.
D: You mentioned Nirvana and Springsteen. Do your influences run the gamut?
Yeah, they definitely do. I think my influences run very wide; one thing about them is they're all reaching back, they all studied what came before them. Ya know, you can be absolutely modern as an artist but you gotta realize where the fuck it is you're coming from.
For everyone that wants to play hard rock... well, it's like I love The Strokes but The Strokes were not the first rock and roll band. They got what they do from (the band) Television, people seem to forget that part. The guitar playing is what makes those Strokes records and the style is so Tom Verlaine it ain't even funny. Well hell, and Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth) for that matter. Those two guys changed the way a whole generation played guitar.
D: Why, of all the styles that influence you, did you pick country?
It's what I've always had the most fun playing. Period. I'm from Nashville and it's a style of music I have an affinity for. I decided to make a country record because I was tired of hearing Toby Keith called country. Nothing pisses me off more than that.
D: Do you think "traditional country" is making a comeback?
I don't know, that's hard to gauge. America has never been very good at reaching back for its music but it seems everywhere else in the world is. America seems to think that if it's not progressive it's not worth listening to. In a cult fashion I think traditional country has a chance but I don't think old-timey bands like Old Crow Medicine Show will ever be household name big.
D: Is the music you make at odds with the charts?
Even though we did chart this record on Billboard, It's COMPLETELY at odds with the Keith Urbans and I have every intention of it staying that way. A lot of those guys are nice guys but there ain't a Hank Williams in the bunch. They're just not songwriters.
D: Do you think more people should do their homework?
Definitely. I think that's the biggest issue with the business today. If you're trying to make a hard rock record and Limp Bizkit is your influence, you've got problems. Nothing good is gonna come out of you simply because there's no base. At the very least, if someone wants to write songs they should have a good understanding of Woody Guthrie and own Nebraska by Springsteen.
D: Your father is very political. How do you feel about politics in music?
I think it's a necessary thing. I personally don't get involved in it; I can't say I never will but at this point I like having fun playing music. If I'm gonna have an issue in my music it'll be personal. Look, I'm only 26. People don't give a fuck what I think about politics.
D: Are there, in your opinion, too many country artist anxious to crossover into the pop world?
You know what, I have a real hard time with that one. The music business is a hard one these days. People do this for a few years, they're on the road, they've got kids, a wife at home, I can't really blame anybody for doing what they gotta do to eat. The truth is, 90% of us (musicians) can't do anything else. I can dig ditches, I'm a pretty good painter and mason and I did it for years, but I just don't wanna fuckin' do it anymore. Don't get me wrong, digging ditches is honorable work, I just don't want to do it anymore. I'd rather play music, ya know.