Every other Thursday, in his column Another Country, Duncan Cooper showcases country, folk and bluegrass music that’s so often unsung around these parts, with an emphasis on new approaches to old American classics.
Single Mothers is the fifth LP from Justin Townes Earle, an artist blessed and cursed with two other artists in his name: his father and his father's friend, as a tribute. It's a loaded album title, then; in just two words, Earle the younger sums up a lifetime of dealing. At 32, recently married and now living sober, the least inhibited songwriter on the Americana scene has honed his craft and whittled his sound—the album's instrumentation is fairly spare, marked by lots of sad, warm slide guitar—and is seemingly transitioning into full-blown adulthood. For a guy who can't but help reflect on how married life means not "chasing pussy" and how Nashville is letting Nashville "fuck it in the ass," that evolution is a fun thing to watch. Speaking of fun to watch: below, check out the premiere of the video for Single Mothers standout "Time Shows Fools." Our interview follows, featuring talk on Billie Holiday, "blow-dried college boys" and more.
Where are you now? I’m actually in Nashville. I came back here for a little while for family things. I actually just moved into a new place, one of the oldest buildings in downtown Nashville. It’s got the WKDF sign on the top of it, which was the rock & roll station when I was a kid.
You were in New York for a while. Does Nashville have a magnetic pull on you? Truthfully, if the family issues that are going on weren’t going on, I wouldn’t be here. Life has brought me back to this place kicking and screaming. The thing about Nashville is: Nashville is not Nashville any longer. When I was a kid, there were 400,000 people here. Over two million now. People who are moving here have no regard for the history of this city. They have no regard for our landmarks or anything. They’re just tearing everything down and throwing up these terrible glass buildings everywhere. The thing is, because of that stupid television show—it makes us looks like douchebags. It makes everyone who lives in Nashville look douchebags. That’s the thing. The city government has bent over and let everyone who comes into town fuck them in the ass.
With the new record, is part of calling it Single Mothers so that you don’t have to talk about how your father affects your music? You know, I try to draw attention to the fact that, especially in this town, mothers have raised a lot more kids than fathers have. There’s a respect I have for women who are single mothers and pull it through. This record is about the ideas of a child turning into the realizations of a man. I think it’s a moving-on record, for sure. “Singles Mothers” was the first song I wrote for it. This record just has a lot of feeling in it. I never say “emotions,” because there’s something very different between the two. Emotions are usually outbursts. They’re outward. You cry, you laugh. Feelings are something that are inside you that you don’t necessarily let out unless you’re comfortable. To each person they’re something different. That’s why I like to write my songs without too many specifics. I always say that if you have a woman, and she’s got red lipstick on, that’s enough to describe her. Let everybody else fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, that makes people think they understand you more than they do, but that’s what it is to me. Let people do what they want with it.
As a newly married man, is the title also a comment on how you'd potentially be as a father some day—to imply that you'd be present? I can almost guarantee that I’ll be a better father than most that I know. Just like anything that I write, I don’t like to write about anything I do not understand. Everything I write is somewhat past tense. Getting married has changed my life, and in so many ways all good. I found an amazing woman. It gives me an ability to process a bit more, because I have someone who has promised to be there. That takes a big load off you mind and process everything now. Me and my wife both have very strong intentions of being better parents than we had examples of.
Is this a bit of a settling down for you? A lot of the songs were written before I got married. But I think that getting married definitely gave me—I was able to look at the songs from a different position than where I wrote them from. These songs were written from experiences that happened last year and further back. I just have to know what I write about or I feel like I’m grasping at straws. If you’ve never been left, and you don’t understand the pain of that, don’t write about it. If you’ve never had a girlfriend, write about never having a girlfriend. You’re going to do a better job at that than anything else, I promise.
I think your fans who know of your battles with addiction will be curious to know how that shaped where you’re at right now. It’s obvious the things that are going to happen when you go from using a lot of drugs to not using a lot of drugs. I think the main thing is just: anything we get obsessed with, it doesn’t matter what it is, a part of mine does not grow. There are literally people because of their alcohol and drug abuse that are 14-year-old boys stuck in a 30-year-old man’s body because they’ve been drowning something their entire lives. The changes that come are immediate. There’s no way in hell my wife would have married me if I was fucked up. You’re defeating yourself before you’re even getting a chance. And this town is full of that. The bar culture is so big, and I know so many people who’ve lost their drive and talent to a bar stool. I took it too far, way too far. Now I couldn’t even imagine drinking myself drunk. For the first time in my life, I hate the taste of beer. A lot of things changed, too, that I’m not sure where they came from. Luckily, I was able to grow out of a lot of things, and why and how I have, I’ll never claim to have any clue.
You’ve got a pretty sizable tour coming up. How do you mentally prepare for that? Touring is about the music. It’s about putting on shows, and that’s the only thing that I worry about when I’m on the road. I don’t play a ton of bars these days, so that helps. When I’m at a show, my backstage doesn’t have a bunch of booze there. There’s not enough for anybody to get drunk. My guys get like a six-pack of beer between them. It’s bullshit that it’s hard to stay sober on the road. Between sound check and the end of the show, you’re working, and if you take that seriously, then that’ll carry you through to the end of the show. After the show, don’t go out with the fans and let them fill you with shots. Life on the road is very tedious, and drinking and using drugs is a very easy way to keep it from being tedious. There are way more chances to get into trouble than there are to not. But it gets easier, especially once you’re married. You’re not going to be chasing pussy, and you’re definitely not going to go out if you don’t drink and you don’t chase pussy.
I know you had a falling out with your old label, Communion, and signed to Vagrant. Before you signed, I remember you tweeted that you were done working with labels. How’s the new label, then? What you need to look at is what they’ve done. They have a good reputation throughout the business, as did my other old label Bloodshot. Bloodshot was a great label to work at. It was the same thought process on a larger level. It’s people that want to make music because they love music. We all want to make money, but it’s not necessarily because of that. I think I ended up in the wrong place. Rough-around-the-edges street kids don’t do well with blow-dried college boys. Other than that, I’m not going to get too deep into it. There was just a very serious clash of what I consider as being a decent person. But life is thrown at you when you’re ready for it. The last couple years of my life has been so insane.
The sound on Single Mothers is a lot more country than your last one. This is the first record I’ve made that will be recreated live. There really is no difference between country and the blues—old country, not the bullshit we have today. They came from the church. The only thing is a fucking railroad track was between them. That’s the only fucking difference. Those songs could be interpreted as country, or they could be interpreted as R&B and blues. I started off with acoustic blues, that’s what wanted to make me play guitar, and got me further into guitar than power chords did as a teenager. I find that the stuff on this record comes back to something that’s a little more natural to me, drifting back to the sounds of the delta and Memphis. That music was very influential to my growth as a musician.
You were once quoted as saying “I try hard not to be lumped in with country music.” Do you feel that as strongly now? It’s definitely I feel strongly now. If you say “I play country music,” you have to follow it up with real country music and whoo-whoo and all this shit. I made The Good Life. I went out on the road, and I did not like what I was saying. I’m never going to make two records the same. I haven’t yet, and I’m going to continue to change them. My first honky-tonk band was put together about six months before I made The Good Life. That was an “I want to do this” record. After I saw where that was taking me, it was not the direction I wanted to go in. I didn’t want that fan base. I didn’t want to play the Grand Ole Opry. I did once and I don’t want to ever again. Country is a very narrow thought. There’s no room to branch out on it. I’m a serious classic honky-tonk fan, and I believe you shouldn’t do anything to it. I moved into a more experimental mode of combining all the kinds of music I like into something a little more neutral.
I love the live video of you playing “White Gardenias” at McCabe. That song is one of my personal favorites that I’ve written. I think that song and “Mama’s Eyes” are the ones that I’m proudest of. The song’s about Billie Holiday. A little know fact is that she was born in Baltimore and raised in Baltimore by a waterfront prostitute, not far from where Babe Ruth was growing up. I heard a quote from her where she said, “I had the white shoes and the white dress, and every night they brought me the white gardenias and the white junk.” I’m done glorifying the junk, so I just lopped it off the end.