All addicts know the bottom exists, and they know someday they’ll slam against it. They just can’t predict when, where and how—or with how much force. The bottom nearly killed Justin Townes Earle in July 2004. Twenty-one at the time, he’d been staying with a woman in her late 20s whose drug habit had grown to catch up with his. Crack cocaine fired their bond, but they were equal-opportunity abusers: They didn’t limit themselves to one way of getting high.
At a particularly hazy juncture, the woman hadn’t returned to her residence for three days, nor had she called. Earle continued to crash there when he wasn’t hustling to score. Then the landlord appeared in the doorway to boot him out. His girlfriend wasn’t returning, Earle was told. She’d suffered a breakdown and was getting help.
So he called a friend—another woman—who, a few days earlier, had said she’d lend a hand if he wanted to straighten up. He’d spent enough time crisscrossing the line that he wasn’t sure of his motivations—one week he’d ache to live differently, the next he’d gleefully get buzzed again. But he was tired, he hurt and he needed a friend.
After a night of troubled sleep, he woke the next morning with a burning in his lungs that grew more severe until he started gasping for breath. His friend insisted on taking him to an emergency room. At Vanderbilt Medical Center, Earle was shuttled into intensive care, unconscious for most of his seven-day stay.
Released in the morning, he took his first hit from a pipe that evening. When his lungs burned, bending him over at the waist, he dropped the pipe. “I realized something had to change,” he says, recalling the moment with matter-of-fact clarity. “I checked into treatment, again. Only this time…well, I haven’t used drugs since.”
As he tells his story, the lanky, blue-eyed Earle paces his Inglewood apartment, a second-floor walkup above a home owned by another second-generation musician, Bobby Bare Jr. “I’ve basically met two kinds of people who are from Nashville,” he says. “They either come from a working-class family, or they’re musicians’ kids. I’m both. My mother grew up Nashville blue-collar. My dad’s a musician.”
His father is Steve Earle, a significant figure in Nashville’s music scene since the early ’80s. Steve’s work still draws rebel singer-songwriters to Music City, even though he moved to New York a couple of years ago with his seventh wife, singer Allison Moorer.
Justin’s mother, Carol, was his father’s third wife. She grew up in Germantown and, later, off Charlotte Avenue in an area once known as Ford City, because of its proximity to an auto plant. Steve Earle was married to Carol when he signed his first record deal in 1983, shortly after Justin was born. That would make the younger Earle the subject of “Little Rock & Roller,” which closed his father’s 1986 debut, Guitar Town.
Justin Townes Earle’s second namesake is his father’s mentor, the late Townes Van Zandt. He doesn’t have to explain that his father and Van Zandt are two heavyweight artistic figures who cast imposing shadows, both as musicians and as independent icons who struggled publicly with their own debilitating drug habits. But he tries not to let his father’s critical acclaim affect him.
“I don’t really think about it or worry about it, because his music is so different than mine,” Earle says. “It would be kind of foolish for anyone to compare us, because what we do is so different.”
Asked what it means to grow up in Nashville as one of those musicians’ kids that he references, Earle laughs. “Mainly, I’ve learned there’s a whole subset of women in this town who won’t go out with musicians because they hate their own musician-fathers,” he says. “But that’s the nature of this town—a lot of pissed-off kids.”
He saunters to the kitchen table to tap a cigarette from a pack, then walks back to the futon that’s pushed to the living-room wall. As he lights his smoke, he says, “I’m leaving the pack in there, otherwise I’d light one after another. Self-regulation, man.”
To his left, propped against the wall, is a framed print of Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. On the other side of the entrance door is a photo of Martin Luther King. Guitars form a line next to the wood-framed futon, which is loosely covered with a red bed sheet. A small-screen television sits next to a stereo, with DVDs, CDs and tapes in haphazard piles in front of it. Amps, speakers, wires and other musical paraphernalia are scattered around the room and kitchen.
Earle accepts congratulations on his first full-length CD, The Good Life, released March 25 on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records. “It took a while, didn’t it?” he says with a crooked smile. “Some of these songs I wrote in my teens. Been singing them forever, so it’s good to get them out.”
He previously self-released an EP, Yuma, which came out in early 2007 and earned him a wider range of club bookings across the South and Midwest. Yuma featured minimalist arrangements built around Earle’s syncopated, blues-to-ragtime acoustic guitar. After signing with Bloodshot, he recorded with well-regarded producer and madman R.S. Field, who has worked with Billy Joe Shaver, Buddy Guy, Sonny Landreth and Allison Moorer.
Steve Poulton, a longtime compatriot of the 25-year-old Earle, co-produced. With Richard McLaurin as engineer, the recording took seven long days in Nashville’s House of David Studio. The songs mash up swing, Texas shuffles, mountain folk ballads, old-time hillbilly and bluesy singer-songwriter tunes.
Earle’s style is too wide-ranging, and his imprint too distinctively his own, to pigeonhole him in one genre. His personality comes through clearest on raucous vaudevillian tunes, where a rakish swagger informs “Hard Livin’,” “South Georgia Sugar Babe” and “Ain’t Glad I’m Leavin’ ”—the latter of which warns, “If you ain’t glad I’m leaving, girl / You know you ought to be.”
Self-deprecation is inherent in his style. So is an easy kind of cockiness. He’s had those traits most of his life, but the newest addition is hard-won humility.
“It’s taken a long time for this record to be realized, and I’m really proud of it,” he says. “But a lot of that is working with all these great people. I’ve had to learn to trust what other people bring to what I do. I wasn’t always like that.”
He hired Field a week before recording began. A former Nashville resident, Field currently lives in his native Mississippi. “I told him it would be a lot of work, and we don’t have a lot of money, and the best we can do is send you a Greyhound bus ticket to get here,” Earle recalls. “R.S. being R.S., he liked the idea of coming into Nashville by bus to make a country record.”
The band included two colleagues who have played with Earle since his days in an old-time acoustic band, The Swindlers: Cory Younts plays a variety of string instruments, and Skylar Wilson plays piano, from barrelhouse to Moon Mullican honky-tonk. “Those two are absolutely essential to my sound,” Earle says.
Earle and Field also brought in several roots-music veterans: bassist Bryn Davies, steel guitarist Pete Finney, fiddler Josh Headley and drummer Bryan Owings. “We didn’t know until we started, but it was the right band for this record,” says Earle, whose finger-picked guitar provides the core of each tune.
The album’s biggest surprise may come in how accomplished Earle is at traditional country. “Lonesome and You” sounds like classic countrypolitan from the ’60s, while “The Good Life” and “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome?” are ace-in-the-hole Texas swing. Told the songs sound like ’50s Ray Price, Earle says, “That’s exactly what I was listening to when I wrote those songs.”
Not so surprising is the aching emotion of two singer-songwriter ballads, “Turn Out My Lights” and “Who Am I to Say,” which most illustrate his father’s influence. The bluesy story song “Lone Pine Hill” could have been a Van Zandt cover, but, like every song on the album, it was written by Earle.
“It’s not strictly a country record, even though it has some songs that are more country than anything they’re doing on Music Row,” he says. “It’s not an old-timey record, although it has some of that. I’ve been saying it’s a singer-songwriter record that draws on a lot of forms of Southern music.”
His interest in the sounds of earlier eras started at age 14, when he began staying at his father’s Fairview home. “The unplugged record by Nirvana helped him get into what he’s doing now,” says Steve Earle. “Cobain does that Leadbelly song, which he calls ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,’ but its actual title is ‘In the Pines.’ That got Justin digging into my records, and Leadbelly was in the same area as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. Justin got into all that, and all of a sudden he was finger-picking an acoustic.”
The young Earle also found his father’s VHS documentaries on Hopkins and Lipscomb by documentary filmmaker Les Blank. Using a remote’s pause and rewind buttons, he studied how the old bluesmen placed their fingers on the frets.
By then, the young Earle already had a taste for drugs. One reason his mother packed him off to Fairview, he says, was to get him away from Sevier Park—away from where Justin had started selling pills and powders. “I was a knucklehead,” Earle admits. “I was selling dope and doing anything I could to get in trouble.”
His father corroborates and expands: “I was a year clean when I got handed an out-of-control 14-year-old. I’ve been dealing with him ever since. Whatever happened before that, I have no firsthand knowledge of. Whatever happened after that, I won’t tell you, because of my pledge of anonymity, and because it’s nobody’s fucking business but mine and my kid’s.”
The elder Earle laughs as he delivers the last lines. A dedicated 12-stepper, he realizes his son’s past is a topic he will be asked to address publicly as Justin’s profile rises. He acknowledges that his son’s high school years were difficult for everyone involved. You can hear his head shake when told that his son said that, during that time, he was more criminal than musician.
“Yeah, whatever,” the father says with another dry laugh. “He was a musician whether he wants to admit it or not. Look, we butt heads a lot. He has to think everything is his idea, and so do I. It pisses me off like it pisses everybody else off. But I raised him that way, so I have no right to complain about it.”
When Justin wasn’t studying the blues at his father’s house, he was couch surfing in Nashville, estranged from both parents as early as age 15. “There were long periods where I was kicked out of both houses,” he says. “I was doing everything wrong. I was a real mean-spirited little shit, basically.”
Soon, East Tennessee singer-songwriter Scotty Melton befriended Earle. “It took someone other than my father to say, ‘You need to play music, because you’re obviously better at that than selling drugs.’ Scotty was that guy.”
Eventually, Earle moved in with Melton’s extended family in Johnson City, staying in a remote mountainside home with Melton’s father, mother, two brothers and sister. “They were a true hillbilly family,” he recalls. “Scotty’s dad was a real outlaw biker type. It was a wild place to be.”
Earle says he and Melton, who was in his early 20s, spent days writing songs and evenings getting high. “That’s when I first started living the lie told by musicians who become addicts,” he says. “You say, ‘Let’s get together and play some music.’ But when you get together, you say, ‘OK, who’s got what? What else can we get?’ ”
After a year or so, Earle migrated to Chicago. His father had rented an apartment there while teaching a course at the Old Town School of Folk Music. “He was only there two days a week,” Justin says. “I was 17, about to turn 18, and I’d convinced him that I needed to be in Chicago because I was doing my blues thing then. But it was a total disaster.”
Earle wrote a song the first night he arrived. He didn’t write another song the entire year in Chicago. “I had lived in two cities where my drugs of choice at the time—mostly opiates and painkillers—were expensive, hard to get and not very good. Then I moved to Chicago, where the same drugs were really cheap, easy to get and really damn good. That’s when my life really turned from music to drugs being my main preoccupation.”
Sharing his dad’s apartment didn’t last long. The younger Earle went to work for painter Tony Fitzpatrick, among other pick-up jobs. It was in Rogers Park, on Chicago’s north side, that Earle began smoking crack cocaine with the same intensity he’d previously given heroin and other drugs.
One of many rehab stints resulted in Earle returning to Nashville and, for a while, joining his father’s band. When off the road, he joined an ongoing local band, The Swindlers, which included several children of Nashville singers and songwriters, including Dustin Welch (son of Kevin Welch), Travis Nicholson (son of Gary Nicholson) and Skylar Wilson (son of Wally Wilson).
“I remember the night I met Dustin,” Earle says. “He was playing at Café Coco when I walked in. I was completely trashed and was wearing these blue cabana-boy slacks, a black short-sleeve button-down shirt, a straw hat and god knows what kind of horrible Beatle boots or something. Dustin told me later that the first thing he thought was, ‘Who the fuck does this guy think he is?’ ”
But the two ended up hitting it off. Welch invited Earle to join The Swindlers; eventually his songs and voice became the band’s focal point. The band’s jug band blues and rollicking string-band music drew interest from Lost Highway Records. Everyone involved encouraged Earle to enter rehab so as not to squirrel the deal, and he agreed. When he got out, his father signed on to produce a few Swindlers’ cuts.
“I stayed clean for about 60 days, and things were looking good,” Earle says. “Then I started using again, and that blew the deal. After that, everyone seemed to lose interest. It would be hard to find me for a show, and when I did them, I just did it for the money. I got more interested again in getting high than making music.”
Eventually he formed a roots-rock band, The Distributors, thinking his songs might get more support with a more contemporary, aggressive sound. This band, too, attracted record business interest; this time, too, Earle’s personal habits scared potential supporters away. Earle eventually sold his instruments for dope money, and that ended the band.
One night, while hanging with another drug user, Earle couldn’t reach his dealer. The other guy could. They agreed to meet the guy at Shirley Street Station, a short-lived music club near the downtown bus station. “Turns out his guy was a crack dealer, not a powder dealer,” Earle recalls. “That’s where it really went all to hell for me. For the next two years, every day was a hustle, just to get money for crack. It eventually got to where nobody would have anything to do with me.”
For a while, he bonded with a woman, and they both tried to pull themselves up. They shared strings of days of sobriety buoyed by promises of making a new life together. But they’d backslide into drugs and began barreling toward the bottom together. Her emotional breakdown was followed by the collapse of Earle’s respiratory system.
“I’d be dead if I hadn’t gone to my friend’s house and if she hadn’t insisted I go to the hospital,” he says. “If I’d been at Shirley Street Station or in some shitty hotel room with some street hooker, which is where I’d been a few months before, then I would’ve died. Junkies don’t take junkies to the hospital.”
After getting clean again, Earle hid out for several months, eventually reaching new plateaus of sobriety. He booked his first public gig at Bongo After Hours, because the coffeehouse doesn’t serve alcohol. Eventually he started playing nightclubs again.
“I wasn’t sure how I’d handle it,” he says. “But I discovered an important thing: Drunk people are stupid. It doesn’t matter if it’s a martini or a Pabst, or if they’re rich or poor. They all act the fool.”
As is often the case, his reputation didn’t make sobriety easy. People would bring him beers or drinks without asking. A handshake sometimes resulted in someone secretly slipping him a small baggy or pouch with a knowing wink. “I just throw it away,” Earle says. “I don’t try and give it back, because people get pissed if you do. They take it as an insult. I don’t have a problem just dumping it.”
As time passes, Earle finds it easier to keep it behind him. “He’s fine,” says his father. “I can’t talk to you about it, but he’s good. I don’t worry about him like I used to.” And the younger and elder Earles have also reached some stability in their relationship as well. Earle says he and his father are friends now, and they get along for the most part, but he also adds that he can get madder at his father than he does with anyone else in the world.
“My dad does what he does, and he’s always going to do what he does, and there’s nothing that’s going to change that,” Earle says. “I’d be wasting my breath if I tried to change him.” Earle began touring in early March in preparation for the release of The Good Life. He performed at the SXSW music conference, and a West Coast tour swing found the media greeting him with major stories rarely given to new artists before their first national albums. His name, and stories of his past troubles, have created interest, and the sure-handed touch of his songs shows the interest is warranted.
“I wasn’t ready before,” he says with a clear-eyed assurance. “I’m ready now.”
For many who’ve long recognized his talent, but also long worried about his health, this is a moment of triumph viewed with cautious optimism.
“I don’t envy him starting out now,” his father says. “It’s a different world than when I started. It’s going to be tougher for him. But I didn’t realize any money from it until I was in my early 30s, so he may be ahead of where I was. He’s certainly ahead of me in getting a handle on himself. But he’s like me in that nothing can dissuade him from wanting to be a musician, and that’s what it takes.”
His dad pauses, a rare thing for the motor-mouthed Earle family. Enough silence passes to make you wonder what’s passing through his head. “The other advantage Justin has is he can’t fucking do anything else,” Steve eventually says. “So he knows he better make it work.”