By Brian Wise.
The first time I saw Justin Townes Earle was in early October 2008 at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. It was only six months since the release of his debut album The Good Life and he was playing on the small Porch Stage, the first stage you encounter as you walk in from Lincoln Avenue. It would have been enough impetus to see him merely because he was the son of Steve Earle but his debut had been impressive enough to suggest that he was not going to stand in his father’s shadow, even though he had briefly been a member of his band.
Less than 6 months later I saw Justin again, this time at Bluesfest where he was appearing with Jason Isbell. I interviewed them together, though it was a pretty loose conversation as both of them had been enjoying a drink. It didn’t occur to me that there was anything darker to this than two young men having a good time. In the ensuing years both would admit to addictions and both seemed to have come out the other side. Isbell, in particular, went on to become the King of Americana, winning just about every award possible at the annual Americana Awards ceremony in Nashville. Justin’s music was much more diverse and harder to categorise, containing elements of country, soul – and country soul – and rock ‘n’ roll. A hint of this spectrum can be gleaned in the fact that he covered both The Replacements’ ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ and Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland.’ The excellent Harlem River Blues in 2010 suggested at that some stage he was going to release a masterpiece.
I am not sure how many times I saw Justin Townes Earle or interviewed him in ensuing years but it was numerous. In 2018 he had been scheduled to tour here but that was cancelled due to what we were told were ‘family reasons.’
My final interview with Justin was prior to his tour of Australia last year, not long after the release of The Saint of Lost Causes (the very title of which might have even been a clue to what he was going through at the time). As you can see he admitted that life had ‘become complicated’ and he ‘didn’t really want to talk about it.’ Those who saw him on that final tour were a little taken aback by his shirtless appearance on stage at the end of the set. Others. were struck by the lengthy personal stories that he told.
How are you?
I’m good. How about you?
Pretty good. You’re in Nashville at the moment?
I am actually. Doing rehearsals and things for upcoming tours. When I get back from Australia I have three days off before I go on a nine week American tour with the full band.
Are you living in Nashville? I thought you were living somewhere else.
No, I was living in Portland. Life’s gotten complicated recently and it’s not really something I want to talk about.
I can understand that. We’re glad to see you on this forthcoming tour. Unfortunately, you had to cancel the last one, didn’t you?
I did, yeah. And I was not happy about it, but I didn’t cancel it. My people cancelled it.
Well these things happen. You’re going to be here for a fair amount of time this time around?
I think it’s the longest tour like Australia and New Zealand to where I’ve ever got.
How many times have you been here now? I was trying to work it out. Ten or 11 or maybe 12?
Maybe 12, I’d say because it’s been 10 years that I’ve been coming over there and I know that several of the years we did two trips a year. So yeah, it’s getting up there.
Well, you obviously must like coming here and people like you coming here as well. You’ve established a really good relationship with the audience here, haven’t you?
I have, yeah. And I find the Australian audience to be like… it’s very similar to an American audience. It really is. People are just not buttoned down and wanting to have a good time. I’ve always said Australia reminds me of Texas without the Texans.
Without the Texans and the guns.
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
This is going to be a solo tour, but I assume that when you get back to the States, you’ll be touring with the band there?
Yeah. We’ve got a nine week tour here in the States and that’ll all be with the band. It’s a lot easier doing it. We get tour buses in the States so it’s a lot easier to tour with a band [than] crammed in a van.
Though it’s a solo tour I’d imagine you’d be doing a fair number of songs from the latest album, The Saint of Lost Causes?
Yeah, at least three. Basically what I do is at least three or four off of each track because I’ve got too many records now to just bang out one that I could be able to get picked.
Congratulations on the latest album by the way. It’s terrific.
Thank you. It was a fun record to write and make.
It’s a little bit of a change of direction isn’t it in a way?
Yeah, it is. I think really the first time for a whole record I’m really looking outward at the rest of the world instead of focusing on the more hard stuff, more personal stuff that I am really known for writing. And I think I’ve always been labelled a very personal songwriter. Like I’ve been known for writing things that other people wouldn’t. They wouldn’t want to admit it.
Well there are a number of themes on the album and one of those themes involves small town America, doesn’t it? There are at least three songs about the situation in small town America. That must have been something that has struck you over the last few years as you’ve toured around America?
Well, it’s like there’s also songs about South Central Los Angeles and New York too. Because I just feel like Americans just don’t feel… Most don’t feel like they have anything in common any more.
It’s almost as if there’s two different Americas there, isn’t it?
There is. I mean really there’s three Americas and they’re very, very, very separate and they’ve separated themselves. There is. There’s this White America thing, there’s a Black America thing and there’s a Latin America thing. I mean I’d say there’s divisions amongst all that because black people don’t get along with Africans and Mexicans don’t get along with Cubans. It’s back and forth. There’s just a lot of division in this country right now that I think is, it’s going to come to a head and I just hope that it doesn’t take something bad happening for it to get worked out.
Well, as you mentioned, there is a song about Flint City – about don’t drink the water. There’s a song about the Pacific Northwest; also the Appalachian nightmare, as you call it. What led to this sort of looking more outwards? What did you feel about your song writing? Was there a deliberate attempt to change the emphasis in your song writing?
Well, yeah. I think it just became time. I mean, it was the right time for it. The climate in this country, I just don’t see how you could ignore it. It’s also too, I know all these people. I mean that’s the thing. I found myself in a position where because of all the places that I’ve lived and my different levels of economy that I’ve lived at.
I know Puerto Ricans who live out in Alphabet City in New York. I know Black folks from Flint, Michigan and from South Central Los Angeles and I’ve spent time in places like that. I just found myself in a position where I could actually, without embarrassing myself, speak for all those different groups of people.
You mentioned it was fun to make. It certainly sounds like you had fun in the studio. You recorded it in Nashville. And you’ve got an interesting producer. Can you tell us a little bit about Adam [Bednarik]?
Yeah. Me and Adam have produced several things together because we co-produced the record and he’s also the engineer and he’s the bass player. Adam has worked on every record I’ve ever made except the one; he didn’t work on Kids in the Street. He’s been the engineer or co-producer on every other record that I’ve made. So, he’s just one of my favourite people.
You’ve got Tchad Blake, who has mixed the album in Wales. Chad’s one of my favourite, I guess engineers, mixers. He’s worked with Mitchell Froom a lot. Why did you turn to Chad to do that?
Well Tchad has produced………He’s mixed the radio singles for my last two records. But it wasn’t in the cards for him to be able to mix the entire record and so it’s just something I’ve been waiting on. Waiting to be able to do, waiting to be able to afford it. But, yeah, I’ve wanted for a long time to have Tchad mix the record for me because I believe he’s also one of my favourites. I mean, he mixed Bone Machine for Tom Waits, Brothers for the Black Keys. Things like that. So, definitely [he’s] somebody that’s been on my radar for a long time.
I was just trying to remember whether he was in that outfit Hound Dog with Mitchell and David Hidalgo from Los Lobos who produced a fascinating record quite some years ago.
It may have been.
Speaking of Tom Waits ……because it had a kind of a Tom Wait’s influence to it. But he gets a fantastic sound on the album.
It really does. With my record he said I’m thinking about going in a Bone Machine direction with this record and I said, ‘Go for it, man.’
It’s interesting that you recorded in Nashville and it’s got a very warm, rich sound, but it’s not necessarily something that you could pin down to a Nashville sound.
Yeah, yeah. No, I mean, that’s the thing that Nashville has. Everybody has this idea of Nashville having this very distinct sound, but there’s been a lot of records made here over the years that don’t have those particular Nashville sounds to them really. I wouldn’t say that Neil Young’s Harvest had a particular Nashville sound to it, but it was recorded here.
“…….hell, country now doesn’t have a Nashville sound. It’s got a shit sound.”
I think too as this town has grown, there’s less emphasis on that old Nashville sound because there’s so many different kinds of players. And, hell, country now doesn’t have a Nashville sound. It’s got a shit sound.
What’s it like performing the songs from the latest album in the acoustic setting? Do they translate easily into that setting for you when you’re performing? You said you’ve performed three or four songs from the album. Does that work easily for you?
Yeah, it does. The first thing is [that] I write all my songs solo on an acoustic guitar because that’s how they were born. Now tempos change and things like that. I played ‘Flint City Shake’ a few clicks faster than we do on the record. I play ‘Lost Causes’ a little faster than we do on the record because if the tempos that they are, it’s boring solo. The record tempos don’t work solo. There’s too much space. Especially for the way that I play guitar. I like to fill out a lot. So, little things like that, tempos change and they’re still very much the same song.
You mentioned earlier on that you are prolific and you are. The output’s incredible. I’d imagine you’re probably even starting to plan your next album by now?
Well, I mean actually where I’m at right now, I’m working on another project but it’s not a record. All I can say is, it is a record but it’s songs to be a companion piece to a novel that a dear friend of mine wrote.
And when are we likely to hear that?
Oh God knows. Probably, I think early next year or something like that.
The Saint of Lost Causes is available via New West.