Is that Honest Abe?

Roots/country musician Justin Townes Earle is unusually heartfelt and honest

By Nick Schwab

The star complex is often, in fact, a veil; a sort of mask that hides the artist’s real problems from the world. Stars are often just as dishonest as politicians are.  It’s less problematic and one admits they have a good reason to be: It’s a false image for marketing.

They may put on the mask that their life is perfect or maybe even in shambles and one may get a glimmer of the actual them in the celebrity gossip magazines, but one still can’t be sure.

With movie stars it’s often hard to know the true “them,” as many of them pick projects for a variety of good and bad reasons, but unless there is that rare one who writes the film’s screenplay, they often rely on method acting.

Then on the night shows and in interviews they make sure to put on a nice image, because who would want to watch a star when people know they are a Mel Gibson-like jack*ss?

This image can still be twisted and distorted when an artist’s ink touches paper, but even if it is, there is a reason for this blurring.

Justin Townes Earle – who will perform Nov. 1 at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati – is an artist that is known for his biographic lyrics and blunt honesty.

Earle is the son of the renowned artist Steve Earle, but actually grew up with his mom. While Justin said that he did not really want to become a musician until he was 13, he said his father did not have an effect on this decision.

However, he said his father did help him out to become honest as a songwriter, and just before this he admitted that he had a “confused and angry childhood” (and that) “in music I found the first thing that I was good at and didn’t get in trouble for.”

Actually, he still seems to have a knack for getting in trouble. An incident at a show back in 2010 turned into a disturbance at a Tennessee club that got him faced with battery and public intoxication charges, as well as a day in jail and a month in a rehabilitation center. He later told the Wall Street Journal in November of that same year that he began abusing hard drugs as early as age 12.

However, Earle does say that he is often optimistic about the future.

“I have been proving throughout my life that no matter how bad it gets there is always hope,” he said. “I have felt that I shouldn’t be here, and I have done a lot of things that by all means, how I lived my life, I should have been dead or in jail. Luckily I was learning and moving on.”

Earle continues on that music gives him a sort of release.

“I think it slowly did help to balance me out,” he tells. “I could say things in music that I couldn’t say in normal conversation with anybody. I found writing songs to be heartfelt and brutally honest.”

So with a story like that and with the pedigree in lyrics that reflect some of these real life problems, is Earle as honest as a songwriter as Abraham Lincoln was a president?

Quite possibly, he is indeed. I realized when talking to him that he answers each question very thoughtfully and passionately, and the interview goes by like a breeze and I realize that I have gone over the time allowed.

However, since I realize that it’s an actual conversation (not just a dull Q & A) I greedily stretch it out a little while longer and ask him about the importance of honesty in being a songwriter.

“I think honesty is very important especially in these days, in a songwriter, because your audience will respect you and listen to what you have to say if you are being honest with them,” he tells. “Our population is stretching more than it ever has before in the past and people are paying more attention to artists. They are tired of people lying to them and putting on a mask and fooling them.”

So, when does Earle think was the turning point in his career when he blossomed as a songwriter?

“When I made Harlem River Blues, I think, was a big turning point when the music establishment and fans felt about me. I found my voice,” he says.

With that statement he admits that his records before that were not that “consistent.”  He then adds that when he started making records he was always in a “learning state of mind and always open to improving.”

So, there you have it. Much like Honest Abe, Earle is honest in his music about his life and in his life he is honest about his music.

I guess some people live it like they play it and play it like they live it. One thing is for sure, it is always better than watching a show done by Pinocchio.

Reach DCP freelance writer Nick Schwab at

JustinTownes Earle will perform Thursday, Nov. 1 at the Taft Theatre, 317 E. Fifth St. in Cincinnati. Tift Merritt opens. Show begins at 8:30 p.m. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Advance tickets $19.00, $25.00 day of show. For more information, visit

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