Forget that Justin Townes Earle’s middle name comes from a revered songwriter and his last name comes from another. When you listen to his songs, you’ll hear a talent who stands on his own. Sure, his voice sometimes betrays his genes, but where dad Steve is rooted in twang — and Texas soil splashed by Celtic rains — Justin is more likely to pluck the banjos of old-timey country or revisit jug-band music, ragtime or Westerberg (The sole cover on his exceptional album, Midnight at the Movies, is the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait”). Clearly, sounding like his dad is a non-issue. Physically, there’s even less resemblance: Skinny Justin looks more like Hank Williams than Dad.
But a Nashville-raised kid sired by Steve and named after a writer his father so worships, Townes Van Zandt, has to know a thing or two about songwriting. You can hear it in the confessional “Mama’s Eyes,” with its starkly matter-of-fact lyrics, “I am my father’s son/we don’t see eye to eye/and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve never tried,” and definitely in the stunning final cut, “Here We Go Again,” which nakedly faces the inevitability of love and heartache.
His first album, 2008’s well-received The Good Life, was a fully realized work from a welcome new talent, but Midnight at the Movies ranks Justin with Nashville’s best. It also earned him the Americana Music Association’s 2009 New & Emerging Artist of the Year Award. Writer Lynne Margolis spoke to him following the album’s release.
Boulder Weekly: With your middle and last names, did it ever feel overwhelming when you started to write songs?
Justin Townes Earle: I think people talked about it so much that I started to ignore it. I was never really affected by it. I never felt any need to live up to anything, first and foremost, and I think that helped.
BW: How about when your first album drew comparisons from the L.A. Times to Townes Van Zandt? How do you react to that?
JTE: It scares me when I get compared to my heroes, even if they are my namesake. I think that any comparisons are probably just drawn from some kind of emotional tie that somebody has … because I’m not Townes Van Zandt. I’m not anywhere near as good as Townes Van Zandt.
BW: When did you decide that you wanted to write?
JTE: When I was about 15 I had officially quit school and was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life, and I was trying to settle between whether I was gonna write songs or sell drugs. And I decided that I liked doing drugs too much; that it would probably be better if I didn’t sell them.
BW: When did you start doing serious drugs?
JTE: I was pretty young. Younger than average … I just always had access to it. So it was very easy to get. And that had nothing to do with my father.
BW: Although I do think there’s got to be a little bit of a genetic predisposition, don’t you?
JTE: I mean connections, like how I found it. I wasn’t finding it through the same sources or picking it up through my father … my dad didn’t ever deal a lot of drugs around me because he was never around. He did do drugs around me.
BW: Where did the ragtime and Tin Pan Alley influences come from?
JTE: They came from growing up around Nashville. It’s just that area of the country. We’re right in the middle of the most rich, saturated area of music in the world. You know, blues, bluegrass, mountain music, jazz and rock and roll — all came from that area of the country. And I had a chance to study a lot of very strange and unusual, strange and interesting music. You get Elvis, but you also get the Othar Turner bands [the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band], so you get a lot of the strange stuff.
BW: Yeah, from the Delta to Arkansas to Appalachia. Didn’t you study at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, too?
JTE: Briefly. I’ve always been a terrible student. I was a total slacker when I was there. I think I went to a class maybe two or three times, and then I started chasing after the girl who worked at the snack bar.
BW: How would you say Midnight at the Movies differs from your debut album?
JTE: On the last record, I stayed pretty true to traditional format and structure with the songs that I wrote, and mainly because I was basing it off a lot of songs that I had written years ago. But this time, it’s definitely a more grown-up record. I really don’t think there’s any angst. Or not much angst.
BW: Do you have any one that you regard as a particular favorite?
JTE: I’m really just proud of this record as a whole, but ‘Mama’s Eyes’ is one of my favorite songs, just because that’s how I talked. I always start my songs like I know what I’m working toward, and how good I execute them from the beginning to the middle is in question sometimes. On this one, I feel really good about the way that it came together, from a writing standpoint. More so than anything I’ve ever written. It’s my favorite song of mine.