A Few Minutes With… Justin Townes Earle

Interview and story by Don Wilcock

For a person 33 years old, singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle has lived 13 of his nine lives and is as naked, painfully real and genuine as any artist out there. As you can see for yourself when he steps into the spotlight at The Egg on Wednesday night, Earle challenges artists twice his age in his sometimes brutal but poetic revelations. He’s honest to the point of regularly shooting himself in the foot during three interviews I’ve done with him in 2009, 2012 and just last month. He wears on his sleeve struggles with drug addiction, valiant efforts to define himself as other than his father (fellow Americana artist Steve Earle) and an almost breathtaking vocal-and-guitar delivery that is his healthiest addiction.

“My dad always told me he doesn’t know why it happened to me, but my (drug) problem was more accelerated than his, and the people he knew,” Justin explained in 2009. “I remember one instance right after my 21st birthday. I was sitting in a hotel room with two of the dirtiest hookers in North Nashville putting bullets in the clip of a 45 caliber pistol so I could stick it in the back of my pants and take them to go cop dope.”

Justin was a drug addict at 12. His dad – best known for his hit “Copperhead Road” – was
sidetracked for years with his own drug addiction and left Justin’s mother when Justin was two years old. His son’s namesake, the iconic singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, died of drug-related causes on New Year’s Eve in 1997. Another of Justin’s mentors, Hank Williams, also died on New Year’s Day in 1953. He was 29. Justin is now 33 and proud of beating the odds.

“I realized shortly after I turned 30 that I did manage to accomplish one of the things I wanted to do,” he told me in 2012. “I wanted to have several records out, and I wanted to have at least the semblance of a career, and that’s kind of what I’ve ended up with. Now I’ve made it out of my 20s and into my 30s. Now it’s time to slow down and make sure it’s not a question of whether I’m going to make it to my 40s or not because it was always a question of whether I was gonna make it to my 30s.”

Three year later, he sees the light at the end of the tunnel, and he’s looking ahead as much as he looks back. “I had one slip-up about five years ago. Other than that, I’ve been sober for over the last decade, about 13 years. I’ve made every record I’ve ever made except for Harlem River Blues 100% sober. It’s how I know to make records. Of course, I smoke a lot of reefer, but that’s – you know, man – that’s not a drug. Anybody who says, ‘I do better work fucked up…’ I mean, how stupid does that sound?”

Veteran folksinger Guy Clark is quoted as saying Justin’s thumbs are like sledgehammers, and Rolling Stone said he “sounds like he’s clinging to each string for dear life, playing as loud as his hands will let him.” His two new albums have amazing production values that come close to the presence he has in concert. Seven albums in, music has become his addiction of choice.

“It’s like I looked at these things and realized that there’s nothing extraordinary about being a junkie. There’s nothing extraordinary about being an asshole. All that makes you is a junkie, a drunk and an asshole.”

Justin and his father Steve are the poster boys for artists who are dysfunctional as families and for whom drugs have played a significant role in fueling their muse and who in some ways are in denial of the role drugs play beyond masking their pain. There is incredible talent in both of them. One has to wonder how different – for better or worse – their talent would be if drugs weren’t in the picture.

“My father is and always will be a massive influence on me. My father and I have had our problems, and we do not have the greatest relationship on the face of the earth, but that’s got nothing to do with business. One thing my father has absolutely managed to do with flying colors throughout his entire career is no matter what he does, he comes out on top. He can make a rock record, a bluegrass record, an old-time record, a deejay record, and he makes great records. He knows how to do it. I watched from a distance as my father fell from one of the most promising acts in the world to a junkie on the street, and then he rose back up out of the ashes and started pretty much right where he left off.”

Once drugs take control of your brain, they whisper the devil’s magic into your soul and twist your logic for life. Last year, I had a chilling conversation with Steve Earle, who is writing his memoir, “I Can’t Remember If We Said Goodbye,” and in the process came to realize that his cousins, who were supplying him with drugs, were keeping him alive “not because they loved me, but because they were protecting a commodity.”

Both father and son love Townes Van Zandt and Hank Williams. Steve’s justification of their mentors’ lifestyles sends chills up my spine.

“Townes was obsessed with Hank Williams. I was obsessed with Townes, and I know a lot about Hank Williams, but Hank Williams kinda never had a chance. You know, he never drank well, but he did it anyway. The morphine and all that stuff was strictly because he was in pain. It was never a drug of choice for him. I’m pretty sure of that. He had spina bifida. Horrible pain every day of his life. So, that’s what the morphine was about. Then this dumb-ass doctor prescribed chloral hydrate for him. The guy claimed to be able to cure alcoholism with chloral hydrate which is a barbiturate. It cured him alright. You can’t drink if you’re dead.”

Justin: “I think that for some reason, I got a reprieve from the drugs and alcohol. I don’t know why. I think that I found something else that I wanted to do with my life, and I realized that I wanted to live a little bit longer than I planned. I realized that I was living a myth. Basically, what I realized was that Townes Van Zandt’s a great songwriter, but he was a fucking drunk. Steve Earle’s a great songwriter, but he was a fucking heroin addict. All this shit, all the people I looked up to, Bob Dylan is a great songwriter, but he was a dick his entire career to the press and everything else.

“It’s like I looked at these things and I realized that there’s nothing extraordinary about being a junkie. There’s nothing extraordinary about being an asshole. All that makes you is a junkie, a drunk and an asshole.”

On “Cowboy Junkies Lament,” Townes Van Zandt sings: “There’s a hole in heaven where some sin slips through, Close your eyes and dream real steady, Maybe just a little will spill on you.”

Van Zandt’s muse couldn’t save him. Just maybe Justin’s will…

WHO: Justin Townes Earle
WITH: Gill Landry
WHEN: Wednesday (March 4), 7:30pm
WHERE: The Egg’s Hart Theatre, Empire State Plaza, Albany

LIVE: Justin Townes Earle @ MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center, 3/10/12
Justin Townes Earle follows in his dad’s footsteps to Mass MoCA March 10 [Berkshire on Stage]
LIVE: Justin Townes Earle @ Club Helsinki, 12/9/11
LIVE: Justin Townes Earle @ Club Helsinki, 12/9/11 (Take Two)
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