Justin Townes Earle talks addiction, redemption, and the 'crap' we call modern-day country


Justin Townes Earle is everything that you'd expect from a Nashville born, country-bred, Americana singer-songwriter. Earle seemed predisposed to be a fantastically unrefined folk artist: his father, the legendary country singer, author, and playwright Steve Earle, has won numerous Grammy Awards, and an Emmy. His name itself is recognizable, and it's no big secret -- the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

[jump] Earle just released his fourth album, Harlem River Blues, on Bloodshot Records this past September, and it has already earned him praise unlike many of the contemporaries in the folk/Americana genre. Harlem captures a sound from an entirely different era, eschewing the modern-day country genre and beating the hell out of what you believe to be known as folk. Capturing the soul of Nashville blues as its best, Harlem can bring you up to the mountains of the North, or bring far down to the Mississippi of the South.

We recently caught up with Justin Townes Earle for a phone interview. Speaking in a deep Southern accent, he provided us with a truly candid and genuine look into the singer-songwriter's life.

Gimme Noise: You're going to be here Valentine's Day, do you have a date?

Oh yeah, well, of course I do.

Tell me about the inspiration for the new album, Harlem River Blues?

This record was kind of my exploration into different shapes of gospel music, and it kind of evolved into specifically that Eastern Mountain, Southern Mississippi River. I was basing my research on the Carter Family and the Staple Singers.

Do you mind if we talk your recent struggles with drug addiction?

Oh no, it's fine! I've started messing with drugs since I was in my early teens. It's one of those things; I'm kind of surrounded by all the time. So I slip and fall on a fairly regular basis, but I mean it's not very uncommon for people in my particular situation. Especially in my environment, it makes it a little difficult.

Do you feel that music has in a way, helped you? Or made it worse for the addiction?

I try to keep it separate from all of that, I think that's very important. I know a lot of people that love playing music, but they blame the guitar for ruining their lives, because they spent their lives trying to do it and never accomplished anything. So, I don't want to hitch my drug addiction onto that in any way.

Have you ever been through rehab?

I've been to a bunch of rehabs, addictions kind, I don't know... I don't even really pay attention to it anymore. Except for when I get put into a detox center, I mean, you're gonna' to notice that. Unfortunately that's just sort of kind the pace of my life. Frequent institutionalization.

How do you feel about this part of your life being so out in the open, and frequently publicized?  

I think it's one of those things that I don't really care about what I do. I mean it's not that I feel any shame on myself; it's just kind of a part of me. I also just don't care, there are certain people that I do care what they think. But ya know, in my family it was never really a high bar to set to stay in the good graces of the family. I think that, it's just something that I've never really worried about. And there are a lot of people that are popping out, especially in the pop world. And I think that, like, my drug addiction is not 100% based on self-destructive behavior; I'm not trying to be anything or kill myself with my drug addiction. I just really, really, really, really like to get high! Yah know, I just really do -- I really like cocaine, and I really like heroin. It's just that, those things on their own, and then the combination of the two... They ruin my life every time! [laughing]

You're kind of like the new Johnny Cash of Americana...

I guess... yeah... Am I allowed to say that? I think there is, I mean, in my semi-public life I think because of my father, that I've just grown up with a lot of people paying attention to me for no particular reason other than my name. And so, I just kind of grew up kind of surrounded by it all. So it doesn't really bother me in any fashion. For people like me it's just kind of a giant part of it and it consumes so much of our lives.

Is there anyone you hope to make proud of you in, in your career?

Pretty much my mom and my dad, but I think they're just happy I'm not in jail. I've already done pretty good there, as long as I can stay out of jail I'll make em' proud.

Tell me about your tattoos. Which one has the most emphatic meaning to you?

The most meaningful would be on my forearm, it's my grandfather's name. It's the yellow rose of Texas and a horseshoe. That's the dearest one to me. I have 18 tattoos in total.

Where, specifically do you garner your experience from to write songs?

I think I use a certain amount of imagination in order from to keep it from becoming too much like a diary entry. And it's just being able to make sure that you don't cross the line into vomiting on people.

You're in NYC now, how is that different from Nashville?

I live in NYC at the moment. I'm in Buffalo at the moment however; it's not that pretty of a place. We're playing tonight at the Mohawk Club. Then we're going to Erie, PA, so it's not much of a difference. I think that the thing about New York, the main difference is, that everything is just kind of immediate. You can get everything you want and it doesn't take a whole lot of effort. I dig that about New York. I always lived a little bit faster than most people where I came from, so I dig the pace. It was a real easy transition for me into New York.

How do you get along with the people there? Do you encounter a lot of the typical East Coast "Fuck Off" attitude?

I get along with it really well. I've always been kind of known as, well I'm pretty brash for a Southerner. When I hate something I say I hate it. That's pretty much the way I've always done things. I'm pretty straight forward.

What is you take on modern-day country?

There aint nothing there for me; there's one thing that I'm very certain about music, for every kind that there is, I think evidently there's somebody for each one. I would go so far as to call the music, pretty much every music that comes off the road these days, crap! It's 100% crap. And so I just sort of wait it out, waiting for Nashville to change.

Do you wish more modern-day country artists would dig into the roots of Americana and folk?

I think they would be better off if they understood it more, but they don't. What you're dealing with these days is a bunch of people whose first record was "Slippery When Wet" - and that's the big issue that you're dealing into now. You're getting people that were brought up on Bon Jovi, and who were brought up on White Snake. [laughing] And so they're learning from this ridiculous music they heard from listening to the radio growing-up, unfortunately.

How do you plan on staying true to your music, as rooted as it is?

I don't know, I mean, it's funny I think that people have ways of pushing things that are really great. There is a way of taking things that are really wholesome, and down-home, and taking it and pushing it out to that more of a mainstream level. I think that the Black Keys pulled that off within their record; like everything from Muddy Waters to Outkast on that fucking record.

There's something that's really cool about that, and that's what I'm trying to do is find that, and buck the boundaries every which way. I also experiment with every genre of music on each record, which I want to continue doing. I think it's all kind of part of being into and finding more sounds.

Where is your favorite place to play music?

I really like doing shows in Australia. The weather and the people make it a very interesting place. They're very similar people, they're a large country that's based on a very rich cowboy culture there that's existed, and the music is very much the same. They kind of lean towards the same kind of thing.

Do you think you'll tour with the Black Keys anytime soon?

I don't know, we're going on tour with the Decemberists this summer, that's the only thing that we have kind of popping up right now.

JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE plays with Jessica Lea Mayfield tonight, MONDAY, FEBRUARY 14, at FIRST AVENUE. 18+. $15. 7 p.m.