Interview: Justin Townes Earle

From an interview with Justin Townes Earle in 2009 — Pollstar

Pollstar: I see a lot of dichotomies in your story and your work. You moved from Nashville to Manhattan. You’re appearing in GQ as a style star. You’ve played punk to country music. How do you bring all these disparate ideas into your work?

Justin Townes Earle: I’ve always been the kind of person that enjoys beautiful things; the songs, and things that are pretty. Be it songs, clothes, cars or houses. I think it all factors into art somehow. I tend to be a bit of a collector of anything and everything. I get into the weirdest things for periods of time and kind of blow through them and leave them behind.

What’s an example of “weirdest?”

I got obsessed with women’s eyes for a really long time. I think they’re very inspirational. I had this notepad I was covering with eyes. I was cutting them out of magazines and having them look at me when I wrote.

Did it help? Is there a song you wrote while being stared at by an eye collage?

I’m really not sure if I can name a specific song but it did kind of put me on the spot to have somebody staring at me. Having eyes on me, maybe it made me have to concentrate a little bit more. I’m a little ADD so I need distractions. I typically write with a TV on or something going, the radio playing. I can’t focus if I don’t have the other wheel occupied.

Have you been writing all your life?

I started writing when I was about 14 or 15. And I think I wrote “Halfway to Jackson” when I was 15, and that was the kind of song I wrote and kind of made it through the weeds. When I decided to start writing I just quit doing everything else, and that was it. Except for, you know, drugs. I did a lot of drugs.

So let’s talk about that. I read somewhere you’d been hospitalized something like five times with overdoses.

All the stories are better than the truths. I was hospitalized several times. I don’t know how many. The truth is, if you remember how many times you were hospitalized, you probably weren’t that fucked up. I had a lot of troubles early on. My dad always said his addiction took years to develop but mine just kind of came fully evolved and I was kind of full-tilt from the start.

What was your drug of choice?

Heroin. But I lived in Nashville so it was really hard to get as a kid for a really long time. It seems to be pretty plentiful now that I don’t do it.

One note I’ve made to myself is that you may have picked your dad’s genes both good and bad. How young were you when you really got into the drugs and how bad did it get before you were able to emerge from it?

I was really young. I think I was like 11 the first time I got caught with reefer. But it developed really fast and I was a really crafty kid. I had all the contacts through neighborhood kids to get just about anything, and I tended to get in deep. Deeper than I needed to.

But how did you emerge from that to be a functioning, touring, writing, artist you’ve grown into?

My work is very much an addiction. Maybe a little less hard on my body than my drug addiction was. I work hard. I still smoke reefer and I work like a fiend. That’s probably how it works, I’d say.

I have to be doing something. I can’t really take time off. I have two months off the road coming up but I’m going to work on a record with a co-producer friend of mine and then I’m going to write my own record. I’m going to be working the whole time.

So how did you come out of that drug addict stage?

I’m still definitely no model of an upright citizen these days. I don’t know how everything changed. I just knew that one day – it’s the same thing my dad and a lot of old junkies say – one day I just woke up and I didn’t want to die anymore.

I didn’t even realize before that I wanted to, but there’s no other explanation for the way I used drugs. I never used drugs to get high. I used them to kill something but I just wasn’t aware of that.

It’s really one of those things people say about the hand of God or whatever. Something touched me. Ain’t sure what it was, because I still don’t go to church, but it saved my ass. Maybe I just grew up. Maybe I actually was lucky to live long enough for my mind and body to catch up with itself.

Not wanting to die is probably a pretty good motivator.


So it didn’t rely on a long stint in rehab or jail like it happens for some people.

I went to rehab. I was in rehab for close to five months. But I’d been to rehab several times.

The change kind of came in there. I didn’t go to rehab with any intention of getting clean. I went to rehab with the intention of having a vacation. It just changed. That was six years ago.

Congratulations on being alive and being around to talk about it, and doing it so openly. And to make a great record. You’ve been asked about the difference between country vs. alt-country vs. Americana but yet you have the Replacements cover and I hear different influences in your work. Rather than me attempting to pigeonhole it, how do you describe what you do?

I describe my music as just Southern American music in its entirety. There’s not a lot about American music that I don’t like. Blues, jazz, hillbilly, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll, those are all ours.

I think there’s something special about all of them and I do prefer to approach them all from a more primitive standpoint with a lot of acoustic instruments. And acoustic instruments used where people wouldn’t typically think of them. I think they are still very valid instruments.

I think there’s an attitude with early musicians, like Charlie Poole. Now that’s a rock star. Charlie Poole would drink a gallon of whiskey in a night and shoot a man in an alley and be shooting dice in a bar down the street 30 minutes later. Now that’s fuckin’ rock ‘n’ roll.

With the early guys, it’s always been like that. It’s only been really since Kurt Cobain killed himself that they started to reel musicians in. When that happened, all of a sudden they finally said, ‘Whoa, everybody’s getting way too fucked up.’ And this whole ‘we can do anything we want’ rock star shit’s gotta stop.

Budgets started getting dropped. Tour support got dropped. They’re making us work for our money now.

But I’ve seen others say the ruin of music is the “American Idol” model, where everything is so slick, so trained and so self-conscious that it’s not fun anymore.

That is true. “American Idol” is proof to me that it’s got to get bad before it can get good again. I’m feeling like, maybe for my children, it’s gonna be fuckin’ awesome. It can’t go much further down than this.

But you are starting to see smarter pop music, smarter hip-hop. The only one that isn’t getting smart is country right now. It seems to be getting worse and worse and worse as it goes along. So, we’ll see.

I’m not as down on all so-called pop country as everybody else is. There’s a few tracks off of Josh Turner’s record I really liked. One of them happened to be written by Chris Stapleton of The Steeldrivers that has a lot to do with that.

I love “Amarillo by Morning,” by fuckin’ George Strait. I’ll listen to that shit and cry. That is just good, cheesy country. And George Strait was a bull rider. He’s as country as they come. There ain’t nothing bullshit or blow-dried about George Strait.

And do you think he’d have a chance of getting signed today if he were new?

No. No. Hell no. He’s now an icon. He’s a staple and a face of country music. He’s a legend.

But the problem with country music these days is they’ve completely turned their back on the legends. They’ve no clue.

Now, you’ve got people running four boards of auto-tune on their live mixes. On their live vocal tracks. They’re even doing that in bluegrass now.

A lot of this new stuff, and I’m not gonna name any names, but a lot of this new-age bluegrass shit that’s coming out, with all these hyper-perfect vocals on them, gimme a break. Bill Monroe was one of the best bluegrass singers in the world but his vocals were not fuckin’ perfect. Never were. You can listen to some of those records, you’ll be able to spot that shit.

Gotta talk a little business. You’ve known your agent, Andrew Colvin, and your manager, Traci Thomas, most of your life. Andrew tells me he first met you when he was interning with Traci, who was your father’s publicist at the time.

She ran a company called Grass Roots in Nashville that handled the bluegrass scene, pretty much. She did everything – Sugar Hill, Guy Clark, my dad, Bill Monroe, a lot of people like that.

I take it putting together your team was pretty organic.

I met Andrew Colvin years ago and even though he’s older than me, at that time he was kind of a wide-eyed kid from Birmingham, Ala. I was like 16 years old but I was a pretty streetwise little shit, pretty much, at that point and was in way over my head.

I met Andrew back then and — I don’t think I did but I might have – got him in a little bit of trouble, probably. Then I didn’t see him for a few years; I kinda dropped off the face of the world for a while and then as soon as I made a record, Andrew started kind of throwing dates at me.

He gave me a Jason Isbell tour, when I put out Yuma about 3 years ago. That was what got it all started. I made Yuma by myself and Andrew gave me that run. It was a two-week East Coast run with Jason Isbell that finally got me in front of real promoters.

I’d been in front of coffee shop hell before that. It finally got me in front of real promoters for a pretty decent-sized tour and gave me a chance to prove myself live, which made a world of difference.

Andrew started really booking me shortly after that. I think right before we made The Good Life he went ahead and picked me up at Ground Control.

At some point you were doing your own booking. How did that work out and do you feel like you have a head for business?

You know, I do think I have a bit of a head for business although I prefer to be an artist. I don’t think the two go as well together as people think they do. I think artists need other people to help them out with that.

Some people need to be in control of not only their artistic life, but the business end of that too.

I’m very much on top of it. Everybody that works with me, Traci, my business manager Kurt, my lawyer Rosemary, everybody has known me since I was a baby. And I’ve known all of them all of my life and they’ve been helping me for years, when I was nobody that anybody should give any help to.

They’ve been absolutely to war with me, watched me completely collapse and come back up, and they’re faithful. They’re very faithful, very honest people and we talk all the time.

On part of the career path, you were a handful for some people. You were fired from the Dukes. That’s your dad’s own band, isn’t it?

Yeah. I was kind of a utility player but I was train wreck back then. I think I was 19 or 20 when that happened.

That was the period when I thought I was doing good because I wasn’t doing any heroin but I was eating like 25 hydrocodones a day and drinking like a fiend.

Evidently I had a three-day blackout in San Diego that resulted in some kind of hysterics at a party that was somebody having for my dad. It wasn’t too long after that run. Oh, and I got arrested on the road.

Once that behavior starts being displayed, you become a little more of a liability. I was falling asleep with cigarettes, burning holes in mattresses in hotel rooms. They were having to buy mattresses and bedspreads everywhere I went.

I’d trash a hotel room every once in a while. I’d go downstairs and drink my whole per diem on top-shelf bourbon and get thrown out of the bar. I was a wreck. A total wreck.

So was it your dad that fired you?

Yeah. Yeah.

How did that go over?

He was, you know, “It’s business.” It gives you a good mind for business later in life when you get fired by your own father and it’s for real. Because you’re not going to take any shit off of anybody.

In this business, you need to know when to push people away, because people can become a liability in this business very fast. And I’ve experienced that.

Did that strain your family relationship with Steve?

Not any more than it already was. We’ve always had a tentative relationship. We’ve never spent a whole lot of time together even though we see each other a lot.

But we don’t spend like father/son trips for the weekend. We might go fishing, but we’ll come back that day.

Not going out for a week in the woods with him?

Naw. (laughs)

Do people have expectations, or maybe you have expectations, from being the son of one great artist and having the middle name of another great artist in his own right? Do you feel like you have to work harder because of it? Or does it not make any difference?

I’ve never felt like I ever needed to live up to either of them. I think it’s a ridiculous idea in the first place. There’s enough Steve Earle and Townes Van Zant look-a-likes out there already.

Well you don’t look like either one of them.

Well, that’s sure true! But my father and I have pretty similar approaches to music. We’re both thesis-style writers that write in kind of a story format, mostly. But musically, he keeps liking to move forward and I like to move backward, as far as approach goes.

Actually, that makes a lot of sense. His last album was produced by the Dust Brothers and included scratching and beats and yours has an almost raw, retro roots vibe.

I’m looking to move back. Maybe progress as much as, say, 1970 and then start going back again.

Then where do you see yourself going back to in five or 10 years from now?

I’ve found that in this business, setting goals is a ridiculous idea. This business flows how it wants to and you are here one day and gone the next a lot of times.

I don’t make many plans as far as my future is concerned because I don’t want to be disappointed.

But I am going to keep making records and keep exploring Southern American music.

And apparently you could wind up being a fashion designer, too.

I like clothes a lot! I don’t how far into that I’d get. That stuff takes a lot of money. I do like clothes. I do like working in conjunction with fashion stuff because it gets me clothes.

The photo we’re running on the cover is the one with the red suit you wore at the Americana Music Association awards. I understand that was made for you?

Yes, a cat named Billy Reid, from Florence, Muscle Shoals, area in Alabama, he made it. He’s got stores all over the place now but they’re really, really fine suits. They’re really Southern, using really traditional materials but much better cuts. Not the big Col. Sanders long coats or anything like that or short French coats with the belts. But in like seersucker.

We’ve become really good friends and he also likes making kind of out-there, semi-loud clothing. When I approached him about making a suit for the AMAs, he got excited as hell and pulled out a sample of a velvet coat and he asked me, ‘What do you think about velvet?’ I said, “Can you do it in red?” and he said, “Yes I can!” He was thinking I might want to wear jeans with it and I was all ‘Hell no, I want the whole damn suit.’

So how did that whole GQ “Style Star” spread come about?

Will Welch at GQ actually would be where that probably came from,.but he turned the people at GQ on to me, I’m pretty sure.

I wear a suit when I play, typically, and I make anybody who’s playing with me wear suits. I started out wearing cowboy suits but my cowboy fantasies kind of died when I realized I don’t ride horses and I grew up in the city. So I started dressing in nicer suits.

It was around that time, and I was surprised by it as anybody. I grew up fuckin’ white trash from Nashville, Tenn.!

But I opened for John Prine at the Beacon Theatre in New York and wore seersucker pants and a linen coat with white shoes, a white shirt and a pink bow tie. So I’m not afraid of patterns. They kind of dig that.

The bow tie seems to have become almost a trademark for you. If you can wear white shoes and a bow tie, you can wear anything.

Yeah, the people like the white shoes a lot too, because I dance around on stage a lot and people always talk about my white shoes on stage. But it’s winter now, so they won’t be seeing those white shoes until Easter.

No white shoes after Labor Day.


Going to wrap up by asking what one question do you not get asked that you wished you had been?

Wow, that’s a good one. I don’t know what I’d like to be asked. I kind of get taken off guard by all questions and then answer them to the best of my ability as they come. But I guess nobody ever asks me about my mom.

So how’s your mom?

She’s good. She really is. I just saw her yesterday. She’s been texting me all day.

I’m close to my mom as in, she’s my mom. She definitely has played a big role in my life. I’m definitely a personal person these days. I don’t get out a lot. I don’t visit a lot of people. I live in New York and I’m not a party kid anymore. I just eat good food, hang out in my apartment and see the shows I want to see and there’s rarely one of those.

She’s still in Nashville. And, unfortunately in this business, every time you see somebody they are older. That’s just kind of the fact of this business is that time slips by very fast. I’m gone so much.

And that’s kind of a spooky thing when you go six months without seeing somebody, and people can change a lot in six months. Especially after 50. It’s hard. Her name is Carol Ann Earle.

She never remarried?

Uh, no.

How long were they together?

I don’t really know. It was so long ago. I don’t ever really remember them being together. My mom never recovered from my father.

Thanks for taking the time.

I’m gonna go get my driver’s license back now.

How did you lose that?

Speeding tickets. I gotta get my birth certificate right now. But, it’s cool. I’m all right.