Justin Townes Earle: The Son Also Rises

Written by June 30th, 2011 at 7:33 am

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Earle may have made his way across the Atlantic, but his music is moving westward. His next album will examine the complex traditions of a city very far from London – namely, Memphis, Tennessee. In the past few years, artists as diverse as Sheryl Crow, Cyndi Lauper, and Huey Lewis have visited the city or adopted its gritty sound, yet none display as thorough an understanding of Memphis’ musical history, at least not as deeply as Earle knows it. Earle’s Memphis is Stax and Sun, W.C. Handy on Beale Street and Al Green at Hi Records, even a bit of Lucero in Midtown. “Memphis produces this street-level kind of music,” he says. “It’s always been working man’s music, and that’s what I love about it.”

Already Earle is writing songs to capture the energy and excitement of those years in the Bluff City. “I’m a cocktail napkin writer,” he says. “I tend to have five or six songs going at once, especially when I’m working on a record. It helps with the continuity.” He writes with the big picture in mind: how the album will play, how the songs will complement one another and form a narrative. “I wrote Harlem River Blues in sequence. I had the song ‘Rogers Park’ already, so I put that at the end and write towards it. It’s like a thesis: You have a hard beginning, middle, and end, and only the most important information is necessary.”

Even though Memphis is the inspiration, Earle plans to record the album with the same crew and at the same studio he’s been using in Nashville. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he says, adding that it’s the spirit of the city he wants to capture. “It’s very important to me to have people who understand how to jump genres and still make it connect, because that’s a hard thing to explain to a musician. Trying to get them down and feel the lyrics can be very hard, especially if they don’t know you. So I’m going to be working with the same group of people for a really long time.”

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That stability is rare for such a transient musician. The route of his life parallels that of the routes rural music took out of the south and into the north. Born in Nashville, the son of a hard-touring country singer who was never quite at home in the country music capital, Earle was a self-described punk kid who discovered Nirvana at an early age (“I was the first kid in Nashville, guaranteed, who owned Bleach”); thanks to Kurt Cobain’s howling cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on that band’s Unplugged album, he starting listening to Leadbelly and other blues singers. “I remember listening to Leadbelly when I was 14 and aimlessly roaming around sleeping on couches in Nashville, and my friends thought I was weird because I listened to this weird music. But my heart would beat fast listening to Leadbelly. It made me feel different than any other kind of music. That’s what made me realize I could actually write songs.”

Nashville was soon in his rearview mirror, as he and a few friends moved to the mountains of East Tennessee, where they rented a small house in the middle of nowhere, popped pills, wrote songs, and raised hell. “We grew our own pot, their dad made his own liquor,” he recalls, “and all we did was sit on that damn hill and smoke weed, write songs, and have a great time.” In a way, it recalls the Nashville guitar pulls his father cut his teeth on in the 1970s and 80s – except the drugs may have been harder and the good times weirder. “We did stupid shit all the time,” Earle says. “I remember during football season one time, one of the guys I lived with got obsessed with field goal kickers. This might have been during the speed period we went through, so we spent hours putting together pieces of PVC pipe to build uprights so he could kick field goals. We built them to spec. It was ridiculous. When we were done, we’d go write and play from the time we woke up until we went to bed at night.”

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