Nashville-born, New York-based Justin Townes Earle lays it all out in "Mama's Eyes," a slow, lilting number from his new album Midnight at the Movies. "I've got my mama's eyes, her long thin frame and her smile," he sings plaintively, "and I still see wrong from right." But he knows he'll always be more closely associated with his dad. "I ain't foolin' no one," he sings on another verse. "I am my father's son."
The father in question is Steve Earle, the country singer who's made a long career of zigging left — musically, politically, narcotically, you name it — when Nashville was zagging right. Following in those footsteps would be daunting for any young artist, especially if you're also the namesake of Steve's hero, Townes Van Zandt, the troubled singer-songwriter who turned his addictions and afflictions into elegant, heartfelt country songs. But Earle neither encourages nor discourages all the interview questions and the curiosity into his family life. "My father's my father," he says. "He's my blood and he came before me. I'm glad people still ask about him because it means that he's still a valid presence in the music industry."
Born in 1982, Earle was raised by his mother while his father toured, but his career already seems to follow his dad's. As a young rabble-rouser in Nashville, Earle performed in local groups like the Swindlers and the Distributors, who mixed bluegrass, country, and punk. He briefly played in his father's touring band but was fired for a debilitating drug habit. After reportedly overdosing a fifth time, Justin managed to clean himself up (without jail time) and come out the other end of addiction stronger and clearer-headed. Post-recovery, both Earles write tough-minded songs about frayed relationships and their own dumb mistakes, indulging an incisive lyrical approach that often comes across like plainspoken poetry.
The musical similarities end there. Almost as if consciously rebelling against his father's rough-and-tumble country-rock, Earle favors a sound that he describes as "old-timey" and plays primarily on acoustic instruments. His 2007 solo debut full-length, The Good Life, combines Western swing rhythms, vintage C&W flourishes, and some Appalachian folk guitar-picking with very few rock sounds. Midnight at the Movies expands that sound in intriguing directions.
"I tend to make pretty schizophrenic records," Earle says. "On The Good Life, I did several different genres but stuck mainly to old-timey methods. But I wanted to put a little bit more modern edge on this one."
The title track recalls Ryan Adams circa Heartbreaker, setting a sad-sack romantic scene full of strangers who have nothing better to do than watch other people at the movies. "Poor Fool" is a honky-tonk two-stepper reminiscent of his Bloodshot labelmate Wayne Hancock, and "Halfway to Jackson" is a blues number whose snare-rim beat and breathless harmonica make it sound like a train song. Earle even takes on the Replacements' oft-covered "Can't Hardly Wait," matching the forlornness of Paul Westerberg's vocals while translating that signature start-stop riff from electric guitar to mandolin.
"That was [producer] R.S. Fields' idea," Earle says. "I was actually against putting a cover on the record, but he explained it to me. That's the one song on the record where people can't dissect me personally. The worst anyone can say is that I did a bad cover of a Replacements song."
Touring as a duo, Earle and multi-instrumentalist Corey Younts take those lessons to heart. "We base our performance on Porter Wagoner at the Grand Ole Opry," he explains. "We slick our hair back and dress nice. We tell stories and goof around and make sure people have a good time. It's a very outgoing show."
It's also one with a very conscious provenance: "Guys like George Jones could write a great song, then walk out on stage looking good as a motherfucker with his top button buttoned and a tie on. He knew how to work a microphone. It was the whole package. Today, you have to figure out how to make each song come across. People aren't going to listen otherwise. There's too much out there to take people's attention away if you don't make an impact."
For Earle, the legacy he was born into is neither a help nor a hindrance. It just is. Asked if he ever felt like he had to get out of his father's shadow, he replies, "Well, I never saw the shadow. The only time anything has been hard on me because I was Steve Earle's son is because I made it hard on me."
In other words, the question of father and son is only incidental to the music both men make. Earle, like his father, is nothing if not his own man. "Nobody owes me nothing," he says, "not even Steve Earle."
Justin Townes Earle
With Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Tuesday, March 24th
Doors open at 9 p.m.; admission $15