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Justin Townes Earle: A chip off a very old block

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Joshua Black WilkinsSinger-songwriter Justin Townes Earle performs Thursday at Belly Up Aspen, opening for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.
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ASPEN ” Justin Townes Earle can be forgiven for looking to an earlier generation for inspiration.

The 27-year-old was bestowed with the names of two musical icons: the last name from his father, the outlaw troubadour Steve Earle; and the middle name from the late Townes Van Zandt, whom Steve Earle has said was the greatest songwriter in the world. (The elder Earle has punctuated that sentiment with the threat: “I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”)

Justin Earle ” who says his first name might have come from yet another musician, Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues ” is indeed musically connected to an era not his own. But that era is one that predates his 54-year-old father, and even Van Zandt, who would be 65 had he not died in 1997 as a result of decades of hard living. Justin’s sound brings to mind rural blues from the pre-World War II Mississippi Delta.



“I don’t know why, but that music’s always spoken to me, from the time I could recognize it and probably even before I could recognize it,” said Earle on his way from Seattle to Boise. “It struck me as something special. But I never sat down and said I want to make something that sounds like 1940.”

Digging deeper, Earle hits on the reason he can effortlessly conjure an earlier time. As a kid growing up in Nashville, he actually witnessed some of the last bits of that musical legacy.




“I actually saw Porter Wagoner sing, when he was still Porter Wagoner,” said Earle, referencing the Missouri-born country music star who died in 2007, at the age of 80. “When you see performers who are as powerful as Porter, you can’t go back.”

Along with seeing Wagoner at the Grand Ole Opry, Earle watched the performance videos that circulated among the Nashville insiders, and went to Opryland, the Nashville theme park that featured roller coasters and concerts by country stars. The young Earle may not have known he was witnessing Jean Shepard and Little Jimmy Dickens” “I was one of those snot-nosed little shits who had no idea who they were” ” but something seeped in.

“I think you turn out to be what you are, not what you want to be,” said Earle.

On “Midnight at the Movies,” released last month, Earle is an accomplished singer and songwriter with a retro vibe. “What I Mean to You” rolls along on steel guitar licks and a whistling solo, creating a nostalgic vibe that runs through the album. But Earle is no slave to the past: The title song is old in its narrative, about falling in love in between double features at the movie house. But it is also kicks off with an up-to-date beat. The one tune Earle covers, “Can’t Hardly Wait,” isn’t by Hank Williams, but ’80s alt-rockers the Replacements.

In addition to early 20th-century sounds, a major influence was Scotty Melton. At 15, Earle moved to northern Tennessee to work with the older Melton. “It was a crash course, really fast, me in a van with two boys 10 years older than me, driving to honky-tonks and dive bars all over the South,” he said.

Still, there is no escaping his blood line. At times on “Midnight at the Movies” ” like the somber “Someday You’ll Be Forgiven For This” ” you would swear you’re hearing not just the voice but the whole sensibility of Steve Earle. Like his dad, Justin has experienced addiction, and has a flair for speaking out against sacred things. (Justin on the Grand Ole Opry: “It really used to stand for something that it doesn’t stand for anymore.”)

As far as pointers in the music business, though, Earle has had to look elsewhere.

“We’ve come to a funny place,” he said. “Ten years ago, my dad could offer me advice that was valid. But it’s changed so much that even he admits he can’t teach me anything anymore.

“I just hope I’ve soaked up the writing and articulate sides by now.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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