Justin Townes Earle: Too Young, Too Soon

The second generation singer-songwriter dead at the age of 38, cause unknown

Justin Townes Earle, Rest In Peace (Art: Ron Hart)

It’s always unfortunate, but talent and tragedy often go hand in hand. Justin Townes Earle, who died suddenly on Sunday at the age of 38, was no exception.

Blessed with a wealth of ability and widely praised by the public and pundits alike, he faced any number of difficulties in his short life, many owing to his struggles with addiction. It was a problem that plagued him since the age of 12, and despite nine attempts at rehab, his life often seemed to veer off-center. Likewise, his tempestuous relationship with his father and unfortunate role model, Steve Earle, provided frequent cause for concern. It carried over into his own family life as well; having experienced fatherhood for the first time three years ago, he would often admit that he was a less than perfect husband and not always there when he should have been for his child.

Some might say that it was only natural that the younger Earle would follow in dad’s sometimes shaky footsteps, or that he would pick up his pop’s habits, given that his dad had his own problems in those same areas as well. Likewise, his namesake, Townes Van Zandt, also faced the same sad circumstance. 

Still, it’s somewhat telling that Justin’s final album was titled The Saint of Lost Causes, a name that sadly seems to have summed up his trajectory entirely.

Justin Townes Earle (Art: Ron Hart)

Nevertheless, Earle possessed a tenacity that informed his efforts, both to stay sober and make music that won him his own acclaim. Although something of an insurgent, and with a fondness for tattoos, he leaves behind a recording career that will ensure his lingering legacy. A 2011 Americana Music Award for his song “Harlem River Blues,” production credits on country legend Wanda Jackson’s album Unfinished Business, and a grand debut at the Grand Ole Opry, all remain hallmarks of a remarkably prolific career. It’s a trajectory that began with his highly acclaimed debut EP Yuma, and continued over the course of eight albums. Three of those efforts were tellingly titled — Single Mothers, Absent Fathers and Kids in the Street — and each shared elements from his childhood, detailing the fact that he grew up with his single mother after his father abandoned them both early on. Nevertheless, prior to going solo, he did spend some time playing in his father’s group the Dukes, but the elder Earle eventually booted him from the band after suspecting that he was slacking off. 

Like most confessional singer / songwriters, Earle’s troubles never strayed far from the surface, even despite his efforts to get them in check. When an artist shares his or her demons and allows for vulnerability in the process, those struggles are often very real and can lead to the saddest of circumstance. Nick Drake, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain are but a few of the more obvious examples.

At the time of this writing, the cause for Earle’s death has been revealed as a “probable drug overdose.”


VIDEO: Justin Townes Earle performs at the Ringwood Public Library in Ringwood, NJ 2011

Lee Zimmerman
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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville, Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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