Not wasting any time

Justin Townes Earle highlights new album at Memorial Hall

Photo: Justin Townes Earle performs at Memorial Hall this Friday

By Alan Sculley

It’s no secret that as he grew up, Justin Townes Earle did not have an ideal relationship with his father alt-country/roots music artist Steve Earle. But there are benefits to being the son of an accomplished songwriter, and one piece of advice stuck with the son as he figured out how he would approach writing songs.

Steve Earle stressed to his son that he shouldn’t expect to be able to write quality songs by the boatload. So Justin Townes Earle has never been one to waste time and effort on songs that were never going to be worth finishing in the first place.

“As far as that’s concerned, that’s something I’ve always done,” Earle says. “My dad pushed that idea on me, is there are 12 months in a year, do you really think you can write more than 12 good songs a year? And so the songs that I’ve written that are on my records, those are the songs that there are. There is no extra catalog. I don’t have enough songs laying around to make a record right now.”

That is certainly true of Earle’s latest album, Kids in the Street. The 11 songs on the album are the only ones Earle brought to the studio to record.

But something was different about the songwriting process for this latest project – the amount of time and effort Earle put into refining his songs. And he has the notepads to demonstrate the amount of effort that went into the songs.

“I’ve always been a re-write person. I write things over and over and over again and adjust little things here and there,” Earle says. “But I definitely with this record did that way more so. I used to do it (write songs) in just one note pad. But now I definitely showed up to do the record with one note pad that had what I needed, but that was compiled out of 10 notebooks of stuff. Still, it was only the songs that were on the record. There weren’t extra songs. So if you steal one of my notebooks, chances are you’re going to be quite disappointed because you’re probably going to have the same song rewritten with tiny little differences over and over.”

Earle thinks the thought and sweat that went into Kids in the Street was well worth it, and critics have largely agreed. The album has received 78 (out of 100) rating from Metacritics, solidifying something Earle’s fans have known for some time – that he’s been able to step outside his father’s considerable shadow to earn a place as one of music’s better still-young songwriters.

Kids in the Street is Earle’s seventh album, and it comes as Earle’s personal life and career have been on an upward arc after some ups and downs that, especially around 2000, threatened to derail his promising career just as it seemed to really be taking flight.

Earle’s life growing up was plenty rocky. His parents were 24 and 26 when they divorced. Earle went to live in Nashville with his mother, Carol Ann Hunter, while his dad, who has overcome a serious drug habit of his own, has gone on to become one of most respected artists in the alt-country/roots music world.

The son, now 35, showed by his early teens that he shared his father’s songwriting talent and renegade leanings, as well as his taste for drugs (including heroin). He temporarily cleaned up his act in his mid-20s and launched his music career with the 2007 EP, Yuma.

Earle’s career progressed nicely over the course of his first two full-length albums (2008’s The Good Life and 2009’s Midnight at the Movies), but by the time he was ready to make his 2010 album, Harlem River Blues, he was using again. Earle started to tour that album, got into a well publicized bar fight with a club promoter and ended up going into rehab.

He’s been clean since (except, he says, for some use of marijuana, which Earle says has not led him back to harder drugs). In 2013, he got married, and this past July, the couple had their first child, a daughter, Etta St. James Earle.

Earle doesn’t regret his many misadventures of his youth and early adulthood.

“I mean, when I say from 15 to 25, I’ve got no regrets,” Earle says. “I mean, that’s the thing, I proved nothing other than I’m hard to kill. And sure, life could have been different. It may not have been easier. It may not have been a lot of things. But my life was crazy and it was fun. And I remember more parts of it every day.”

Earle credits his wife with helping him maintain his sobriety and says being clean has also been good for his music, saying he feels more creative now.

“These days, I see a clearer path of where I’m going writing wise,” Earle says. “(Before) I would have a general idea and have a lot of happy accidents in the past that would help me through. There’s just a little less of that and knowing what I want and how to get to it (now).”

He returned to music in fine form, releasing Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now in 2012, followed by a pair of thematically related albums recorded during the same session, 2014’s Single Mothers and Absent Fathers, released the following January.

Now Earle has started his next musical chapter with Kids in the Street. And the extra time he spent with the songs wasn’t the only new twist in the project. For the first time, he also brought in an outside producer in Mike Mogis, who brought his keen ear for wisely choosing instrumentation and delivering a full, uncluttered sound to the album.

“He was definitely able to tap into some different kinds of grooves, the way that songs moved, things like that,” Earle says of Mogis. “(He brings) his ability to layer things, where it’s not like you’re dealing with this Phil Spector wall of sound, like a hedge of sounds, it’s only about half covered. There’s a lot going on there, but he has this incredible ability to still make it seem sparse and leave space, while still having a lot going on.”

Kids in the Street finds Earle capably touching on a variety of musical styles. His country roots are well represented on songs like the gently loping “Faded Valentine” and “What’s She Crying For,” which has a bit of swing in its step. He also offers up a taste of Professor Longhorn-styled New Orleans R&B on “15-25,” some bluesy shuffle on “Short Hair Woman,” some easy-going rock on “Champagne Corolla” and “Maybe A Moment” and even a bit of jazz on “What’s Goin’ Wrong.”

To help re-create that full sound live, Earle has been backed on many of his 2017 tour dates by the Canadian roots rock band the Sadies and his long-time musical cohort, multi-instrumentalist Paul Niehaus. For his November dates, though, it will be just Earle and Niehaus on stage.

“It’s something we’ve done a lot over the years just for pure economic sake. And it’s always good,” Earle says of the duo format. “I’ve always kind of jostled it between solo, duo, and band over the last five years at least.

“We’ll do it a bit more stripped down for that section of the tour,” Earle says. “And we will be looking to do more (shows) with them (the Sadies) in the future, next year.”

Justin Townes Earle performs this Friday, Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. at Memorial Hall in Cincinnati, located at 1225 Elm Street. Tickets range from $35-55. For tickets or more information please visit www.JustinTownesEarle.com

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Alan Sculley
Reach DCP freelance writer Alan Sculley at AlanSculley@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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