Remembering Justin Townes Earle: 1982-2020

Justin Townes Earle
Erika Goldring/Erika Goldring Photography
– Justin Townes Earle
Justin Townes Earles graces the cover of Pollstar in 2009.
When someone tells you for years they are going to break your heart, it doesn’t lessen the sense of shock when that time comes.
Justin Townes Earle, the much-loved iconoclast of Americana, Southern music, country, folk or an amalgam of them all, was found dead in his Nashville apartment by police doing a welfare check Aug. 23. He was 38. A friend called in the check after not hearing from him since the previous Thursday, according to a Nashville police report. The Tennessean reported that with no other obvious signs of foul play, it is believed he died of a probable drug overdose.
“We are heartbroken and devastated over the untimely loss of Justin. He was a giant presence on and off stage, with an unmatched ability and passion for connecting with everyone. He was a storyteller who had many more stories left to tell the world. We will miss him deeply,” agent Joe Wohlfeld of United Talent Agency told Pollstar.
An outpouring of tributes by artists as well as fans flooded social media as the news spread of Earle’s death. Jason Isbell, who played in Earle’s band for a time and was a frequent collaborator, tweeted: “Had a lot of good times and made a lot of good music with JTE. So sad for his family tonight.” He added, “Justin bought the suit I got married in.”
Margo Price shared: “Sending love and condolences to Steve Earle and the entire family of Justin Townes Earle … he was always kind to me and he’s gone too soon.” 

His father, acclaimed singer-songwriter Steve Earle, simply posted a family photo of father and son.  Steve Earle had also battled drug addiction as a younger man, and bestowed the middle name “Townes” on Justin in honor of his friend, the late, legendary Townes Van Zandt. 

It was the last thing those who have followed Justin’s career, let alone those close to him, wanted to hear. His struggles with addiction were well known; he talked about them at length, and often, for years. In and out of rehab, which he described to Pollstar in 2009 as “vacation,” he still managed to forge a formidable body of work in between the rollercoaster of sobriety, relapse, sobriety and relapse. 

See also: A Frank Conversation With Justin Townes Earle

“Justin had the unique ability to put himself in other people’s shoes. Through his songs, he expressed pain, happiness, stress, and curiosities that most people could never find the words to convey. We have lost an incredible talent,” UTA’s Alec Vidmar told Pollstar.

As a headliner, Earle was a road warrior, most often playing smaller roots-friendly clubs including various City Winery, House of Blues, and other clubs and heritage venues including the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Over his shows reported to Pollstar, he moved a career total of more than 60,000 tickets and grossed nearly $1.5 million. What’s not reflected in the box office are the soft tickets sold for the numerous festivals he’d appeared at, including Stagecoach, Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, UK’s Glastonbury and many others. 

Earle’s latest release, The Saint Of Lost Causes, dropped May 24, 2019, and was received with some of the highest praise of his career. He was touring in support of the record when COVID-19 put a halt to live concerts. 

Earle’s likely final show was March 13 at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware, opening for Brian Fallon. No box office was reported, and while there are other shows listed in his later itinerary, COVID-19 had forced most shows to shut down after that point. 

In recent years, it was believed he’d beaten back the demons, having married, become a father and moved away from his old haunts to Portland, Ore. He talked again of sobriety, staying clean, and maturity. 

Those are the heartbreaking details of his exit. But his entry into the music world, first with stints with a rock band, the Distributors, and a bluegrass/ragtime outfit called the Swindlers, led to his 2007 solo debut with the six-track EP, Yuma, that gained the notice of critics with its throwback to very traditional country, blues and folk music and sparse production. 

See also – Hotstar: Justin Townes Earle

He followed Yuma with a full-length, The Good Life, in 2008, on Chicago’s tastemaking Bloodshot label. Its mix of Hank Williams Sr.-esque country, New Orleans-adjacent boogie, and blues balladry led to more acclaim and was followed in 2009 by Midnight At The Movies, his first recording as a New York City resident. In fall 2009 Earle earned his first Americana Music Award as Emerging Artist of the Year.

He spoke to Pollstar at length for a 2009 cover story during that album cycle, about his love of traditional music, fashion, his upbringing by a single mother, and his many previous stints in rehab as a result of a drug habit he’d begun to develop at the age of 12. He was sober at the time, but admitted as he often did in interviews throughout his life that rehab was more than just a familiar place to him.

Earle soon found himself in the throes of his addiction again, and was arrested in Indianapolis in 2010. He’d reportedly trashed a green room and the incident sent him into a spiral and subsequently back into rehab but, this time, for an extended period that seemed to bring some relief to the troubled Earle. 

Justin Townes Earle
Doug Seymour
– Justin Townes Earle

See also: Justin Townes Earle Looks Back At A Year Of Recovery

Clean, at least for the time, in 2011 Earle released his breakthrough album and single, Harlem River Blues. But even the title track was ominous, with the opening lines: Lord, I’m goin’ uptown to the Harlem River to drown Dirty water gonna cover me over and I’m not gonna make a sound The gospel-tinged record fully reflected his move from Nashville, where he was raised by his mother, Carol Anne Earle, to New York City. His father was largely absent during Justin’s formative years, as he pursued his own music career and addiction that interrupted his Guitar Town breakthrough. Father and son reconciled in later years, and often performed together at festival appearances. Harlem River Blues caught the notice of David Letterman, who brought Justin on his late-night show with a band that included Isbell. “Harlem River Blues” won the Americana Music Association Award for Song of the Year in 2011.

Letterman became a fan, bringing Earle back a year later to perform “Look The Other Way” from his next album, Nothing’s Going To Change The Way You Feel About Me Now. In 2012 he was also nominated for Artist of the Year at the Americana Music Awards.  

Earle released more records that some have considered autobiographical, including 2014’s Single Mothers and 2015’s Absent Fathers as well as 2017’s Kids In The Street and his final release, The Saint Of Lost Causes. “Justin had so much more to say and was too young to leave us. He left an indelible mark in so many hearts. The response from his fans to his peers in the industry has been tremendous and overwhelming. We truly lost one of the greatest modern songwriters and storytellers,” UTA’s Jesse Rosoff told Pollstar. At the time of his death, Justin was writing and recording his upcoming project during the pandemic. “We shifted the majority of his 2020 schedule into 2021 and were working on booking some additional dates. Justin, like many musicians during this time, was eager to get back on the road. He loved being on stage, bantering with fans, meeting new people and exploring different cities. Anyone who has seen Justin perform live was taken for an unexpected ride,” Wohfeld said. Justin Townes Earle leaves his wife, Jenn, and daughter Etta; mother Carol Anne Earle and father Steve Earle. A public memorial is expected to take place in 2021.  

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