Have baggage, will travel

Hardknocks songwriter Justin Townes Earle in Cincinnati

By L. Kent Wolgamott

Photo: Justin Townes Earle will perform at The Taft Theatre in Cincinnati on Oct. 29; photo: Joshua Black Wilkins

Justin Townes Earle is now a clean and sober happily married man, riding on buses with his new band, touring behind a pair of records that were released recently three months apart and contemplating a move out of Nashville.

But don’t try to tell him he’s settled down and found his place in the world.

“I have no definite plans for the future except to be with my wife,” Earle says in a phone interview. “There’s no telling where I’m going to end up on the next record or where I’m going to move, if I move. I hope I never get anywhere or get to the point where I say ‘I’ve got this.’ That’s the point where your journey stops. I never want to arrive. I want to keep the art going, going, going.”

Earle began making his art, writing songs, as a teenager growing up hard and fast in East Nashville.

He is the son of Steve Earle, the hard-living Texas singer-songwriter, who left Justin and his mom when the boy was a toddler. He was raised by his mom, Carol Ann Hunter, who worked three jobs to support herself and her boy.

His first new record is titled Single Mothers, a tribute to Hunter. But the title cut, like the rest of Earle’s songs, shouldn’t be read literally.

“There’s some autobiographical content in there,” he says. “But they’re not 100 percent based on my experience. I like to base my songs on feeling. I write a hard beginning, middle and end. You’re writing something in shorthand, in the most condensed way you can. I would only reach one percent of people if I wrote ‘I got sad and shot dope.’ If I write, ‘I got sad’ people can relate.”

“Shooting dope” is a reference to Earle’s well-documented history of drug and alcohol abuse that began when he was 12 years old—“Have baggage, will travel,” he quips. But the 32-year-old has been clean for two years, after a relapse ended eight years of sobriety.

Single Mothers was followed in January by album number two, Absent Fathers.

“They were recorded at the exact same time in the same recording session,” he says. “We did 22 songs in 10 days. We didn’t overdub my vocals or guitar. We let the guitar player go in and do some solos. There’s no such thing as a bass solo on my records.”

“We” is Earle’s new band, Paul Niehaus of Calexico and Lambchop on guitar and pedal steel, and drummer Matt Pence and bassist Mark Hedman from the folk band Centro-Matic.

“I picked up their rhythm section,” Earle says. “It’s been amazing playing with those guys. They definitely have not been touched by the Nashville sound. I literally remember when I was 17 years old I wanted to play with Paul Niehaus and wanted to make a record with Centro-Matic. I kind of got there.”

Single Mothers and Absent Fathers find yet another change in Earle’s sound, which has moved from the folk and old time blues of his earliest record through the gospel tinged country of 2010’s Harlem River Blues to his current Southern music amalgam that adds R&B to the mix.

“I have a severe lack of patience,” Earle says of his musical changes.” I’m probably the ADD poster child for America. There’s so much music I’ve been exposed to being from the Southeast.

“With the exception of hip-hop, every single form of American popular music has come from the Southeast,” he says. “I’d love to make a traditional jazz record someday. But I’ll have to become a much better guitar player to do that. But you’ll never get an electronic record out of me. You’ll never get a big, overblown, synthetic record out of me.”

It took awhile for Single Mothers to come out as the headstrong Earle got in a tussle with the record label that was initially going to release the disc.

“Nobody’s going to tell me how to make my record and what to sound like,” he says. “One of the things I took from my father was music business stuff, things to do and not to do. I’ve been living with that my whole life. I had an $800-a-week publishing deal when I was 17-18 years old. Those don’t exist now.”

Earle and “my boys” (as he calls his band) have been on tour for much of the past year and are doing another round of dates this fall. Playing with a band has altered Earle’s performance style.

“I’m playing guitar completely differently,” Earle says. “The claw hammer banjo thing does not work with this band. We were looking at Booker T and the MGs. Steve Cropper (MGs guitarist) rarely played two strings at a time. Paul will answer me and I’ll answer him and we’ll get something going together. And you can tell the bass players and the drummers in the crowd because they’re staring at the rhythm section.”

Justin Townes Earle will perform on Thursday, Oct. 29 at The Taft Theatre, 317 E. Fifth St. in Cincinnati. The show begins at 8:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit justintownesearle.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer L. Kent Wolgamott at LKentWolgamott@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP freelance writer L. Kent Wolgamott at LKentWolgamott@DaytonCityPaper.com

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