By Denise Hylands
Justin Townes Earle is a one of kind singer songwriter. Branded with the names of two highly respected country folk music troubadours, he has had a lot to live up to in name alone. Son of Steve Earle and given the middle name of his father’s mentor Townes Van Zandt, he himself is now a well-respected artist who has paved his own way musically.
Growing up surrounded by some of the greats in this genre, you’d think it would have been a natural progression to follow in his father’s footsteps. As a 12 year old listening to Dr Dre and Nirvana, it was Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged version of Leadbelly’s ‘Where did you sleep last night?’ (a.k.a. ‘In The Pines’) that sparked something in a young Earle to further investigate the blues and realise that music could be something that he was able to do. Through discovering Leadbelly, he soon found the sounds of Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. This respect for music became so evident in his own style, a modern revivalist of old time blues, soul, country and folk or as he describes himself ‘a Southern music preservationist’.
Life hasn’t been plain sailing for Earle, growing up mostly without his dad and raised by his mother in East Nashville, Earle found himself at a young age dealing with substance abuse and spending too much time on the streets. Addiction was an ongoing battle for Earle but now at 35 years old he’s clean, married and recently a first time father.
In the past 10 years he has released 7 albums; his latest Kids In The Street reflects on his life from early rebellious days growing up in Nashville to his new found happiness. His songs tell real life stories that are intimately personal, providing interpretations of the world around him. Matched with his song writing, he is a gifted guitar player. Taking inspiration from guitarists such as Malcolm Holcombe, Lightning Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, he has collected some of their techniques to create his own guitar picking style.
On his first tour to Australia in 2008, there stood a tall, lanky framed, stylishly dressed young man. Sure, we knew he was Steve Earle’s son and I suppose we did expect something special, but nothing like he offered. Talking and singing in his gentle southern drawl, playing clawhammer style guitar and singing with such sincerity: it was a mesmerising experience for all who witnessed. You could almost have been convinced he was either playing his guitar through a repeat loop or he had someone else playing with him behind the velvet curtain.
His musicianship is breathtaking and intense. Proving himself to be a unique singer, songwriter and performer with every song he delivered. Australia has since been a destination he has visited numerous times, too many to remember, with a loyal and loving following whom rejoice his next arrival.
‘I didn’t get into music to become a blues musician, or a country musician. I’m a singer-songwriter. In my book that means I get to do whatever I want.’ – Justin Townes Earle