He has unquestionably inherited at least two of Steve Earle’s genes, though father and son rarely saw each other in Justin’s youth. His mother, Carol Ann, was left to raise the unruly boy alone in Nashville.
Justin is a gifted writer and performer who has also struggled with drug addiction. If his parentage weren’t weight enough, Dad bestowed Justin with a middle name that is an homage to the legendary Townes Van Zandt.
But Justin doesn’t let the one-two punch of Townes and Earle get in the way of defining himself on his own terms.
“I’ve never felt like I ever needed to live up to either of them,” Earle told Pollstar. “I think it’s a ridiculous idea.”
The 2009 Americana Music Association award winner for new/emerging artist of the year has fronted punk bands, evokes Hank Williams, covers The Replacements and recently appeared as a 2009 “Style Star” in men’s fashion bible GQ.
With a taste for suits and bow ties, he can talk about the virtues of seersucker and linen suits, and wax expansively about the flash of white shoes on stage – after Easter, of course. Of his fashion sense, GQ wrote that Earle’s “radical style – a mix of rockabilly, punk and southern dandy – is all his own.”
He also, as he readily admits, endured his own troubles and obsessions before earning his AMA award and the GQ spread. The obsession with his work keeps his troubles in check.
Earle said he “first got caught with reefer” when he was 11 years old. Drugs were plentiful in Nashville, if you knew where to find them – and he did.
“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,” he said. Within a few years, his drug of choice was heroin.
Earle started writing and playing in his early teens, writing “Halfway to Jackson” – which he recorded for Midnight at the Movies – when he was 15. By the time he was 20, he was a guitar tech and “utility player” for Steve Earle and The Dukes. He also developed a taste for “top-shelf bourbon and hydrocodone” on the road.
That indulgence led to fiery mishaps with unextinguished cigarettes and hotel mattresses, and a three-day blackout in San Diego. He was fired by his own father.
“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,” he said.
Earle was arrested at least once, entered rehab a few times and was hospitalized for overdoses. He doesn’t recall how many times.
“The truth is, if you remember how many times you were hospitalized, you probably weren’t that fucked up. My dad always said his addiction took years to develop, but mine just came fully evolved and I was full-tilt from the start,” Earle said.
That kind of addiction tends to end very badly. But even though Earle says he’s still “not the model of an upright citizen,” he swapped his drug addiction for art.
“I just knew that one day – and it’s the same thing my dad and a lot of old junkies say – I just woke up and I didn’t want to die anymore,” Earle said.
Despite Earle’s hard knock history, agent Andrew Colvin of Ground Control Touring and manager Traci Thomas stuck by him. They’ve both known him from his hell-raising teens, and Earle is equally loyal to them and the rest of his business team.
“I got to know Justin when he was maybe 16, working for his dad’s record label,” Colvin told Pollstar. “I kept up with him while I went through college and into the business. We kicked it around for a year before I finally began booking shows for him. I think I wanted to see how serious he was. I think everybody wanted to see how serious he was. And as it turned out, he was very serious.
Earle has emerged a fully realized artist, with more than a decade’s worth of songs and stories; a rising star who defines himself and his art as Southern American rather than Americana, though the genre has embraced him.
“People see Hank Williams but his songwriting almost reminds me of Randy Newman,” Colvin said. “He writes great story songs, not just heartbreak songs. He’s got the whole package: he’s got the songwriting, the guitar playing, the charisma is in every ounce of him. And he’s a great singer.”
He’s playing a coveted gig at Levon Helm‘s Studio in Woodstock, N.Y., Jan. 2 before launching a national headline tour later in the month that includes stops in Houston, Austin, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Philadelphia, New York City and Nashville.