February 8, 2012


You Should Know: Justin Townes Earle

Joshua Black Wilkins
Joshua Black Wilkins

The first time I actually paid attention to alt-country singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, and considered him as more than just the son of outlaw country star Steve Earle, was in September 2010, when he was arrested for assaulting a concert promoter who refused to pay him for his rowdy performance in Indianapolis. This is what I call good press. 

Earle got out of jail the next day—and then headed to rehab, again—and returned to the road soon after. Meanwhile, I kept my ears open. That same week as his arrest, his new album, Harlem River Blues, was released via Bloodshot Records. Legend has it that after three middling albums by his son, the eldest Earle stepped up with some advice for the fourth: “Write about what you know.” That’s essentially the thesis statement for Harlem River Blues, which is why it's good.

Earle, now a resident of New York City’s East Greenwich Village ‘hood, was raised in Nashville around country musicians, so the LP has an old-timey rhythm and blues and alt-country vibe to it, but with a contemporary hipster edge. He’s struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol and the lyrics reflect that, especially my favorite song, “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” which chronicles his daily wins and losses of his battle with, essentially, himself.

When he’s on the straight and narrow, Earle is fantastic live. I’ve seen numerous spot-on performances of his, particularly one last summer at the Newport Folk Festival. A devout road dog, he’s hitting the road again this spring, starting March 10 in North Adams, MA (see all the dates!), in support of his next album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, out March 27. “It was an artistic adventure,” Earle says of the soul-tinged LP, which was recorded live with his band. He released the LP’s title track recently on his website. Download it right here, and watch a video about the making of the album below. Also, check out one of my personal favorites—a short film by Garden & Gun magazine, featuring an acoustic performance of “Slippin’ and Slidin’.”