MANHATTAN, NY—Justin Townes Earle grew up in South Nashville, Tennessee, with his mother, Carol Ann Hunter Earle. His father, alternative country music artist Steve Earle, gave Justin his middle name in honor of his mentor, Townes Van Zandt. Justin’s parents separated when Justin was two years old. Justin entered the music business playing in two Nashville bands, a rock band called the Distributors and a ragtime and bluegrass combo called The Swindlers. Earle later played guitar and keyboards for his father’s touring band, The Dukes. Justin began releasing albums under his name own at age 25 in 2007 and received two Americana Music Awards, New And Emerging Artist Of The Year in 2009 and Song Of The Year for “Harlem River Blues” in 2011. In recent years, his recording career has stalled due to disputes with his record company; his fourth and most recent album is 2012’s Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now.
From the balcony at City Winery tonight, Steve Earle watched his son perform a hybrid set of songs mixing folk, country and pop. What did the elder Earle feel when he heard his son sing the lyrics to “Mama’s Eyes?” “I am my father’s son/We don’t see eye to eye/And I’ll be the first to admit I’ve never tried/It sure hurts me, it should hurt sometime/We don’t see eye to eye.” We cannot know what either father or son felt at that moment, but perhaps knowing that people would be looking for a reaction, dad seemed focused on his dinner throughout the song.
The younger Townes accompanied himself on acoustic guitar for most of his set. He had someone accompany him on electric guitar on many songs, although Earle performed a handful of songs solo. Earle’s guitar style borrowed partly from blues fingerpicking and partly from claw hammer banjo. Earle performed his songs well, at times mumbling like Van Morrison, other times yowling like an old blues singer, but most often simply sounding like himself, a man with an ordinary baritone singing well-crafted songs about ordinary life. He also engaged his audience with considerable chatter between songs, sharing anecdotes about his life and the inspiration of his songs. All the while, he drew his fans deeper into intimacy with the storyteller. Both his banter and song lyrics showed him to be a mix of admirable confidence and sympathetic vulnerability. The gently flowing songs espoused the deep roots of Americana, but perhaps the two years he lived in Brooklyn also taught him how to insert a raw urban texture. He pushed the boundaries of traditional folk and country arrangements to forge his own brand of American roots music and create something slightly fresh. At certain moments, the combination was magnetic. Nevertheless, many of the songs begged for a fuller sound. It would be interesting to hear them played by a rocking band.
Visit Justin Townes Earle at justintownesearle.com.