Justin Townes Earle: Steve's Son? Yes, Just as Talented, but Not Political and Much More Fun

Justin Townes Earle.

You want to put the weight of the world on your kid, give him that name.

Justin, an early Christian martyr.

Townes, for Townes Van Zandt, the legendary --- and famously self-destructive --- singer/ songwriter from Texas.

And Earle, because you're Steve Earle, hard-core troubadour, once thought to be Nashville's answer to Springsteen.

Steve Earle left his wife when Justin was two or three years old, but just as he towers over most of the musicians in Nashville, he was a looming presence in his son's life. No surprise that Justin took to music. "He did encourage me," Justin has said, "because at the point I decided that's what I wanted to do, I was really on my way to prison. I was a huge pain in everybody's ass and I think he was glad I was actually taking an interest in something."

Steve Earle did more than encourage his son --- he made him a member of his back-up band. Justin explained why, in an interview with Laundromatinee.com:

Touring with The Dukes came about largely because my dad didn't have enough people to play all the parts on the records. At that point, I was really pretty strung out and he wanted to get me out on the road to keep me focused on something. He thought it might help a bit, which it didn't in any form. I managed to get even more screwed up than I did at home. But it was an experience I will always be grateful for because it taught me a lot of Dos and Don'ts that most people at my level don't understand.

Steve had to fire Justin. Which did nothing to stop Justin's drug-taking. (Like son, like father; Steve had once done jail time for heroin.) Justin, again:

I suffered respiratory failure after being awake for 14 days. I've always known that, like, if you walk into the emergency room, and first off they don't make you wait -- like they go 'oh God, you come here' and they grab you -- you know you're in trouble. And then you know you're in double trouble when the scissors come out and they start cutting your clothes off.

Then came the rebound. Justin Townes Earle now has two CDs, and a sterling reputation; his most recent release, Midnight at the Movies, represents a real leap, spanning classic country and classic songwriting. GQ featured him in its Style issue this month. At the 2009 Americana Awards, he won Emerging Artist of the Year. On-stage, he's charming and funny and, unlike his father, not political. I've seen him as an opening act who almost stole the show; my wife has a maternal crush on him.

And, in every venue, he hooks an audience. Here he is on the lawn of somebody's house:

Can he write? These are the lyrics for "Mama's Eyes" --- as sweet a redemption song as I ever hope to hear:

I am my father's son
I've never known when to shut up
I ain't fooling no one
I am my father's son
we don't see eye to eye
and I'll be the first to admit I've never tried
it sure hurts me, it should hurt sometime
we don't see eye to eye

I was a young man when
I went down the same road as my old man
I was younger then

now it's three am and I'm standing in the kitchen
holding my last cigarette
strike a match and I see my reflection in the mirror in the hall
and I say to myself

I've got my mama's eyes
her long thin frame and her smile
and I still see wrong from right
cuz I've got my mama's eyes
yeah I've got my mama's eyes

Watch him sing it:

But why am I gassing on? This guy is hugely amusing. (When we talked, I said, "Let's do this without mentioning your father." We almost made it.) And blunt? If you're in the mood for wit and candor.....

The woman on the cover of "Midnight at the Movies" --- know her?

Yes. Her name is Carmen.

Is she ---

Never put anyone you're f---ing on the cover of your CD.

Dylan did.

And it worked out real good for him. No, never put a picture of a woman you're f--ing in the permanent record if you want to keep f---ing her.

"Midnight at the Movies" makes me think of old-time movie theaters. Like 'The Last Picture Show' --- not the multiplex.

Right. And the movie I had in mind is 'Cool Hand Luke'. For me, Luke is one of the most manly, emotional and completely lost characters I know of.

He resonates with you?

I'm not so testosterone-driven. I prefer to be an artist, a calm person, a traveling nomad. But make no mistake --- you get me mad enough, I will drop you like a bad habit.

Some facts, please: height and weight.

6'5". On the road, I weigh 168, At home, ten more.

The Justin Earle diet?

I try and eat good. On the road, that's next to impossible. And we eat a lot of unhealthy things when we're in Texas --- that's what you do there.

Five 5 ODs by 21? How old were you the first time?

12 or 13. I got into my grandmother's pill case.

How's your sobriety?

I smoke my weed, but I'm good.

Did you graduate high school?

I barely even started! I skipped out after 3 months in the 9th grade.

Is that legal?

I don't know. It was Tennessee.


Lots. On one wrist, YUMA. On a forearm, PAPA. And on my chest, TOWNES.

In Nashville, as you know, songwriters are like businessmen --- they make appointments to write. Kind of like the Beatles: nine to noon in the studio, an hour for lunch, work until five. Are you that regular?

In Nashville, they may write on a schedule like the Beatles, but they ain't the Beatles. 99% of Music Row is bullshit. And don't forget --- unlike 99% of the people in Nashville, I'm from there. I've got a million ex-girlfriends there, another million women I've f---ed, guys I've fought with and done shit with. That gets old. Nashville's like any other hometown --- after a while, it's stifling.

Everybody asks you about your father. But "Mama's Eyes" makes it pretty clear that the bigger influence on your life is your mother. Who is she?

Carol-Anne Earle. She was wife #3. My parents split up when I was about 2. I realize more and how much I'm like my father. My gentleness comes from my mother.

How did she react when she first heard 'Mama's Eyes'?

She cried. Like she always does.

Are you a reader?

Yeah. Though not recently. I just failed to finish 'Into the Wild.' But I always give things a second chance --- that's the mark of a smart person, right?

Watch movies?

A lot. My fiance, Rachel Keesecker, loves them.

Fiance? Is that a recent newsflash?

No, I left my former fiance for her.

Now I do have to make reference to your father, his seven marriages, and his ironic line: "You can't say I lack commitment."

This time we actually have plans.

What about the non-stop touring?

I've been touring most of the time since I was 15. And I do love the artistic life. What I've had trouble with is being at home. But the touring is slowing --- I finally am in a place I love where I know I'll stay and with someone I want to stay with.

Cross-posted from HeadButler.com