Q&A with Justin Townes Earle
The Nashville-raised singer-songwriter spoke to Charlotte Magazine about adapting to life in New York, how his style and sound has evolved, and his next record
Courtesy of Blood Shot Records
It’s no surprise that country outlaw-turned-critically acclaimed singer-songwriter and activist Steve Earle has a musician son. But Justin Townes Earle, who plays the US National Whitewater Center with Sam Bush on Saturday, October 22, is his own man. His blend of acoustic roots, old time, blues, country, folk, and rock may fall under the same Americana umbrella as his dad’s tunes, but JTE (who was named for songwriter Townes Van Zandt) has forged a career quite different than his dad’s. His last Charlotte show, at The Evening Muse in 2008, was like a crash course in the history of American music. It was full of obscure blues, old time country, one of his dad’s songs, and originals. Since, he’s evolved as an artist. He’s released three albums, won an Americana Music Award, and continues to surprise. His next step? Fashion (!) and an album focusing on soul and rock’s formative years.
Where are you calling from?
We’re actually in Nashville watching a moron drive in front of us very slowly. I’m flying to New York in a day or so for fashion week.
What are you doing for fashion week?
I’m involved with a few different designers. Billy Reid in particular. I’m going up to support him. He won men’s designer of the year this year, so there’s a lot of attention on him. I’m also doing a function for WarbyParker, which is a high end eyewear maker who is launching a Buddy Holly frame. I’m playing the launch party.
Have you always taken an interest in fashion?
I have since I was pretty young. It took me a while to figure out how to shop and how to get exactly what I want. I’ve slowly figured it out. I only wear clothes from a select few designers, but that’s kind of what you do—buy what works for you.
Did what you look like on stage develop along with the music?
When I started off there was a little bit of hokey country and western to my music. As I grew out of wearing cowboy boots and ugly pearl snap shirts, it seemed to coincide with my music (changing). After I made my first record realized I didn’t want to be a honky-tonk musician. I quit wearing the hats and the boots and quit writing strict country songs.
Was it something about making or touring that first record that helped you make that decision?
It was because I like so many different kinds of music. And country music fans tend to be very one-minded, especially classic country fans. If I would have continued making pretty staunch country records I would’ve ended up with this fan base later in my career that would not have let me change. I decided I didn’t want to tempt that fate.
You haven’t played here since “The Good Life” (Earle’s first record) came out.
It’s kind of happened that way with several cities. We’ve only been there once and played tiny places and then in a lot of places we’re going back and playing rooms that are way bigger than what we played five years ago when we were there.
I felt like you took us to school at that show. You were introducing the audience to deeper material that they probably haven’t heard. Was that the intent?
Yeah. It still kind of is an intent nowadays. I tend to be less vocal about it. I realized people don’t like going to school sometimes. I decided to let it speak inside the music. I ended up writing songs like “John Henry,” to show that these old formats and old subject matter still make as much sense today as they did back then. Take it back and try to think of a simpler time.
Do you try to capture different eras when you’re recording?
Usually when I go to record it I do think about—well do I want this to sound like Jim Reeves? What era of Jim Reeves do you want it to sound like? What are you going to do to make it not sound like a real Jim Reeves track? That’s kind of the idea. You kind of pick. You need to pick one (influence) and concentrate on that song. Pick what you’re trying to represent and trying to say, and not try to show that you’re a guy that likes country blues, rock n’ roll... You’re going to end up with a mess.
There is so much out now that is hard to describe without listing five styles.
Even I scratch my head in trying to figure out what it is, and I know a lot of music. I sit and wonder what we’re supposed to call this now? I think people they get started too fast and jump the gun a little bit.