Now on the same label as his dad Steve Earle, this second generation country-rock troubadour paints his own picture of America
Soon enough, country music superstars and other like-minded artists might not even fool with making albums. Blake Shelton and Keith Urban have teased releasing songs one at a time instead of waiting for an albums’ worth of material—a digital-age game plan that makes perfect sense in a genre that’s always been more about hit singles than multi-song story arcs. True believers of the post-Sgt. Pepper’s notion of popular albums as works of art probably roll their eyes those two anyway, but even the sternest he-man pop-country haters might be taken aback by another star considering a singles-only solution: the timelessly brilliant Sheryl Crow.
If you prefer coherent albums featuring country, folk and roots sounds, don’t fret this potential mainstream move away from the format. Some modern-day outlaws, ranging from genre-defiant renegade Steve Earle to Grammy winner Kacey Musgraves, make such memorable start-to-finish albums that it’s hard to imagine either artist breaking from tradition in search of Spotify streams and radio hits.
Based on recent album The Saint of Lost Causes, Earle’s son Justin Townes Earle is another songwriter capable of getting the most out of a format liable to fall out of favor on Music Row. Hearing only one or two of the famous son’s new songs would water down a larger story— what happens when the less fortunate realize their plight and begin lashing out against society.
RNR Globe chatted with Justin Townes Earle recently about an album driven by a single theme and inspired by the workman-like story-songs of Bruce Springsteen.
Based on songs like “Appalachian Nightmare,” there seems to be a theme on the album—the folly of youth.
You know how Springsteen found this way to make everybody understand New Jersey? I kind of wanted to take that idea and apply it to Appalachia; Flint, Michigan; and South Central Los Angeles. This is my first full-on social issue record.
What made you want to do a social issue record now? Is it because we’re in polarizing times, or just because of where you’re at creatively and personally?
You know, I think that we’re in probably the most polarizing time in America since the Civil War. I think that it’s that ugly, and some of the things that are happening with a regularity are that shocking.
This is a big country. I’m sure they have the same problem in Russia. I sure Siberians don’t feel like they’re part of the country that Moscow’s part of, but we’re not that isolated.
Thinking about the folly of youth and our current situation, I can’t help but wonder what I’d pick to rebel against if I was a teenager. It’d be so easy to find either side of the aisle as pushing you too hard.
In this day and age, with the way both sides are behaving, both left and right, your best way to rebel is to become a CPA and a golfer. Everybody is just kind of losing their fucking mind right now.
Obviously, your dad is not afraid to speak his mind. Have you learned a lot from him over the years about how to address broader issues through song?
It’s definitely one of those things that took me a long time to feel comfortable with. I don’t think this is a record I could have written when I was 25. For me personally, this isn’t a record that needed to be written when I was 25.
My dad goes pretty far, you know, with what he’ll say. I don’t want to go that far because I don’t want to necessarily get involved in straight-up political issues. I want to get involved with social things, the things that really affect people on the ground level.
You can tell those stories about what impacts regular people and let them know that someone with your platform knows what they’re going through and make a difference without being as political as your dad or Rosanne Cash.
And someone who’s older and been around for a while. My dad wasn’t writing these all out-and-out political records when he was 35, 37-years-old. He had political songs, but he didn’t write out-and-out political records until he was in his 50s. I think people accept it a little bit more from an older person who’s been around. Nobody definitely wants to hear a 20-something year-old preaching to them about politics. I know that’s a sad way to think about it. My 20-something year-old fans will be pissed off to hear me say that, but it’s true.
This is probably a chicken or the egg question, but did you write a few of these songs, spot a theme and run with it, or did you set out to write an album for 2019?
I had in mind to write this record. That’s one thing my dad taught me and that I learned from listening to Springsteen. You write records to be records if you really want them to have some continuity about them and not just be a collection of songs. Even though the themes are really loose when it comes to my earlier records, Midnight at the Movies and The Good Life and all of those have these themes that run through them. Though this is my most thematic record, for sure.
A lot of things I’ve written about recent albums, and a lot of others’ reviews I’ve read, gravitate to this idea that any sort of socio-political music suits 2019. You know, The War and Treaty made an album for its time, Brandi Carlisle made an album for its time, and so on. They did, but I’d imagine that concept means a different thing to different artists. There are so many ways creatively to speak to your audience where they are now.
I wanted to make a record that spoke to the times, but this record, to me, also runs a theme that has gone on through human history. That is, if you keep pushing the little guy around, the little guy is going to eventually fucking react, and you’re not going to like it. People slowly figured out that, “Hey, big drug problems aren’t just a problem of the black community. If you marginalize white people in Appalachia, they’re going to start cooking meth and they’re going to go crazy with prescription pills and they’re going to have their own problems.’ It’s just about marginalizing people. If you do that, they’re going to buck back eventually.
The people that are forgotten and isolated—not just because they live in a rural area, although some of them do, right?
Absolutely. One thing you can say is Flint, Michigan is an island. What’s happened there is completely insane. The fact that we have Americans that can’t drink their water, in Appalachia and in Michigan, is an absolutely stunning thing.
VIDEO: “Frightened By The Sound”
Has traveling so long as a performer informed you about social ills, beyond what’s reported on the news?
Absolutely. Travel more than the news, because the news is reported by somebody and their opinion and what they want to report. Getting out and sitting down at a bar with the locals and talking about what’s going on has informed what I write more than anything. I’m a news junkie, but actual contact with people has done more.
Seeing it for yourself sometimes hits you in the gut. I lived in Cleveland in 2011 and 2012, and I’d visit friends in Detroit. I made a comment like, ‘Oh, I heard it’s a nightmare here, but it just seems like a big city to me,’ so they drove me down stretches where all you saw was abandoned mansions. It was surreal to see for myself.
Detroit is one of those serious American failures. We failed those people in a massive, massive way. We failed the people of the so-called Rubber and Rust Belt completely. We gave them this great idea of the American dream and then took it away from them. Even though it was typically one stupid white man who used a pen to take all that away, we allow that to happen.
By writing these songs about ugly truths, are you trying to comfort the people in these situations or inform others of how bad things have gotten in some areas of the country?
A little bit of both. One of big things I see is all these people walking around with headphones on all the damn time, missing out on what’s going on around them. If you walk around with your headphones or earbuds on all the time, you’re going to miss out on a lot of really cool and really ugly things that you need to see.
One last thing, has mainstream attention for various music called Americana helped you out? You were doing what you do for a while, and here comes Margo Price and others who maybe don’t sound just like you, but they have the same values and tastes.
I think in some ways, it has. I think Margo Price is great, so she’s not part of the problem. One of the things that happens is, when I started off making so-called Americana records, you were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Emmylou Harris and Buddy and Julie Miller and people like that. Do you remember alt-country in the ‘90s? Anybody that wore a flannel shirt and played a telecaster was considered alt-country. It’s kind of turned into that. ‘Oh, you’ve got a banjo on your record. It’s Americana!”
But that happens to all forms of music. Tell me that Howlin’ Wolf would be happy with what’s called the blues these days.
VIDEO: “Appalachian Nightmare”