The second-generation songwriter shares his dad's talent and troubles, but he's sober now and coming into his own.
When Justin Townes Earle played the Turf Club last February on his way up the Twin Cities club chain, the son of Nashville outlaw Steve Earle made it abundantly clear he's turning into one of his generation's craftiest songwriters, and a mighty fine singer to boot.
Unfortunately, despite his rock-solid performance, a lot of people at the club that night also spotted another, less enviable trait the 29-year-old tunesmith shares with his dad.
"Yeah, I was pretty well wasted on that whole tour," Earle now confesses. "When I drink, I drink everywhere I go. Fortunately for my career, though, I'm good at not letting my personal choices affect my professional obligations.
"I'm a little too good at it, is part of the problem."
Returning to town Monday for his first headlining set at First Avenue, Earle had to postpone a fall tour behind his stirring new album, "Harlem River Blues," so he could undergo substance abuse treatment. It wasn't his first time entering rehab, and he seemed to know it was coming again. One song on the new record chronicles his fall from grace as it's happening, "Slippin' and Slidin'," a slow shuffle with lyrics that could reflect that night at the Turf Club:
"Why do I try my luck? / I shouldn't touch the stuff / But it shouldn't make a difference / As long as I keep up appearances."
Despite his awareness of the issue, Earle did not go on the wagon again until after he went to jail in September. Indianapolis police arrested him for public intoxication, battery and resisting arrest, purportedly following a dispute at a club over pay. Earle was advised not to discuss the matter in an interview last month, but he has hinted the arrest was a bum rap that he plans to dispute in court.
Still, he doesn't deny that it did him some good hitting rock bottom.
"The last time I went to rehab was in my early 20s," he said. "I'm in the sunset of my 20s now, and physically, it just gets harder to detox."
Named after his dad's own troubled mentor, late Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt, Earle got into drugs even before he entered his teens. He said he went from being a "scrawny, 80-pound kid that everybody picked on to being the crazy, wild-eyed kid that nobody [messed] with."
In past interviews, he has bluntly laid a good chunk of blame for his troubled youth on his dad, who rarely came around after divorcing Justin's mom, and who battled a heroin addiction that sent him to jail in 1994. However, Steve apparently has come through when it came to Justin's addictions.
"He would call a lot, making sure I was going to meetings and whatnot," Justin remembered. "It was his idea to send me to rehab the first time. He knew what I had to do. It's not like a kid thinks about sending himself to rehab."
Despite their strained relationship in the past, the two Earles have each left Tennessee to reside in New York City and apparently share a mutual respect.
"We very much treat each other as colleagues now and talk a lot of shop," the younger songwriter said. "He obviously has a wealth of information on the music business that I can learn from, and I know a thing or two now that I can pass along to him."
Carters, Staples & Westerberg
"Harlem River Blues" certainly shows a learned songwriter at work. Opening with the hum of a church organ and rousing accompaniment from a choir, the disc's title track introduces a soulful mix of Southern gospel and acoustic country over lyrics about a man jumping to his death: "Lord, I'm going uptown / To the Harlem River to drown / Dirty water gonna cover me over, and I'm not gonna make a sound."
Earle said he wanted to "bridge the connection between the Carter Family and the Staple Singers" for the sonic flavor of the new album.
As for the lyrics in the title track, he said, "Due to the fact that I've been heavily involved with drugs, suicide is a subject I know a lot about." That song, in particular, he said, is about a friend whose suicide Earle foresaw -- "but I knew I couldn't stop him, and I knew he was at peace with doing it."
The rest of the record ranges from the sexy, bass-slapping grinder "Move Over Mama" to the modern train song "Working for the MTA," plus several ballads vividly inspired by Earle's new New York surroundings. ("I can't see myself ever living anywhere else now," he said.)
Another influence that can be heard throughout the album is that of Minneapolis' own songwriting legend Paul Westerberg, whose Replacements classic "Can't Hardly Wait" was covered by Earle on his previous record.
"Without question, the Replacements are one of the big ones for me," he said, citing "All Shook Down" as his favorite of their albums and actually crediting his love for "Can't Hardly Wait" to Philadelphia twang-rock band Marah. "They were playing it every night on a U.K. tour I was on with them, and it just sunk in deeply."
Upon returning to the road, Earle said he's not worried about falling into old habits.
"It's an everyday thing I deal with, not just something that surfaces when I hit the road," he said. "One thing I've learned is that it's simply a lot easier to tour sober than it is not. So, if anything, there's extra incentive playing it straight."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658