When Steve Earle paid tribute to his friend and mentor Townes Van Zandt by naming his first son Justin Townes Earle, he bestowed the child with a moniker that would take some living up to. But by all accounts, the younger Earle has proven himself a singer-songwriter of real talent and conviction. His 2008 debut, The Good Life, earned critical raves, and his latest CD, Midnight at the Movies, covers wide swaths of musical ground, from Woody Guthrie–style folk to country-blues, from vintage bluegrass to indie rock, with tinges of ragtime and honky-tonk thrown in for good measure.
Earle doesn’t makes any effort to hide his lineage on the new album. “I’m my father’s son,” he sings in the opening line of “Mama’s Eyes”. “I’ve never known when to shut up.” But as he explains over the phone from a tour stop in Dallas, he’s not about to challenge his dad’s well-earned reputation as a chatterbox. “I wouldn’t say I’m as talkative as my father,” he drawls, “but I do get indignant the same way he does, and I say what I need to say.”
“Mama’s Eyes” goes on to relate how the two hardheaded Earles have consistently butted noggins over the years. “We don’t see eye-to-eye,” croons Justin in the second verse, “and I’ll be the first to admit I never tried.” The confession of familial discord will come as no shock to anyone who’s read Hardcore Troubadour: The Life & Near Death of Steve Earle, the 2003 biography that offered an unflinching analysis of the Earle family’s dysfunction, with the focus on Steve’s self-destructive bent. In it, author Lauren St John repeatedly claims that Steve selfishly refused to offer any career encouragement to his sister, singer-songwriter Stacey Earle—but Justin says that isn’t true.
“Lauren St John can kiss my entire family’s ass,” he declares. “She was a family friend that we let in, and who got personal interview time with everybody and then completely took what everybody said and wrote what she wanted to.”
Justin doesn’t deny that his divorced dad wasn’t always there when he needed him. But as a touring artist who plays 250 shows a year himself, he’s grown to understand the drawbacks of the musician’s life. As a child raised by “an angry single mother”, he found refuge from life’s problems in classic country music—with the odd detour into indie rock to discover groups like the Replacements. Paul Westerberg’s Mats’ classic “Can’t Hardly Wait” is the sole cover on Midnight, which benefits from the fiddle, banjo, mandolin, Dobro, and steel-guitar contributions of some of Music City’s top hired hands.
“I was born in 1982,” says Earle, “so by 1985 I was kind of realizing what music was. And between 1985 and 1994, if you had a parent that was even remotely hip, you probably had a Replacements record in your house. And my mother was one of those.”
Justin Townes Earle plays the Media Club on Tuesday (May 19).