Earle in the Family 

Justin Townes Earle charts his own creative course while embracing his bloodline.

Growing up as the offspring of a famous musician can be quite the double-edged sword. On one hand, benefiting from the gene-pool lottery allows for plenty of opportunities the next guy might not get. On the other, it's harder to be taken seriously in any creative pursuits given how most people assume any success comes via your surname. Not surprisingly, being the son or daughter of a renowned artist is something many people look at as an issue to be dealt with. But it's something Justin Townes Earle, son of maverick singer-songwriter Steve, has embraced. "I think when people start thinking of having to deal with it, then it's like you're making it a burden," he explained. "It's not a burden. It puts your foot in the door, but the difference is once your foot is in the door, if you're going to follow that up by sticking your head through it, you better make sure you do it properly, because people are going to pick you apart."

So far, so good for the 27-year-old Nashville native, currently touring behind his recently released sophomore outing Midnight at the Movies. Not unlike last year's debut, The Good Life, Earle's love of old-timey music is reflected in a high-lonesome drawl that has its roots in the music of namesake Townes Van Zandt, Hank Williams, and singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers. Among originals like the ragtime-ish "Walk Out" and honky-tonk weeper "Poor Fool," Earle reveals a modern twist via his mandolin-kissed cover of the Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait." "[Producer] R.S. Field said we should record something that was going to be fun and he was thinking more along the lines of some backwoods number that nobody's ever heard," Earle explained. "But I'm kind of sick of the old-timey 'I'll outdo you by recording this more obscure song.' So I decided to go for something that was obvious to me but maybe not so much to everyone else."

Aside from music, the other path Earle followed his father down at one point was substance abuse. Not unlike many children of divorced parents (his folks split when he was a kid), Earle acted out. Unfortunately, it came in the form of dealing drugs, getting addicted, and finally dropping out of school. "I was kind of a knucklehead kid. Growing up with my mom, we didn't have a lot of money, so by the time I was twelve and thirteen, I was a little shithead dime- and nickel-bag dealer at my school. Then I started getting into harder drugs and I discovered that I'd make a really bad drug dealer because I used too many of my own drugs," Earle admitted. It was during this time that he got bit by the music bug when he caught the video for Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on MTV one day while cutting class at a friend's house. After retrieving a guitar he got for his ninth birthday out of the closet, Earle was soon playing in punk and Nirvana cover bands with his friends. Musical tastes quickly took a turn after hearing Kurt Cobain and company cover Lead Belly. "When Nirvana put out the MTV Unplugged in New York record, it had a cover of 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,' which I found a lot more intriguing than any of the new stuff that I'd heard," he excitedly recalled. "Then I found out it was written by Lead Belly and from there I discovered Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Woody Guthrie, Charlie Poole, and people like that."

An invite when he was fifteen to live in the mountains of East Tennessee with a friend's family led to his getting further into hillbilly music, even as his drug problem worsened. Returning from this two-year hiatus of rural living into being a guitarist/keyboardist in father Steve's touring band found him getting sacked by his pop as his addiction became uncontrollable. Currently five years sober, Earle refuses to play the blame game. "I had a pretty screwed-up life. The portion of it before I was twelve years old was, yes, my father's fault. But after that, I was pretty conscious of my decisions and was out running the streets pretty wild and I screwed up my life myself up until I was about 22," he laughed. "That wasn't anybody's fault but my own."

Nowadays, the only addiction the six-foot-six singer-songwriter has is to fashion. "I own about seventy-something pairs of cowboy boots. I'm like fucking Imelda Marcos. I'm not scared to admit that I'm in Americana music and I do own designer clothing. It's the only shit that fits my skinny butt and everybody can kiss my fucking ass 'cause I like it."


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