JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE REVERES AMERICA’S MUSICAL PAST WHILE DEFYING EXPECTATIONS AND OVERCOMING PERSONAL DEMONS

Few young singer/songwriters treat America’s musical past with as much reverence as Nashville native Justin Townes Earle does. But few artists have shrugged off personal baggage to reinvent themselves in such candid ways, either. First, there’s that name: Son of country maverick Steve Earle and godson of legendary folkie Townes Van Zandt, Justin has carried the weight of lofty expectations on his shoulders since birth. In his 32 years, he’s suffered from the same kinds of chemical dependence as Dad and Townes, neither of whom he knew well — his father left his mom when their son was only a toddler, and no one got too close to reclusive alcoholic Van Zandt in the years leading up to his 1997 death.

Yet Justin, at once embracing and shoving away his hidebound tradition, has thrived in a method Steve and Townes would recognize: 
as blue-collar raconteur, barb-tongued iconoclast and an expert interpreter of Americana’s emotional intensity. Justin has recorded six albums of rowdy honky-tonk, horn-laden Memphis soul, rootsy R&B, and sumptuous gospel, yet his last two efforts, 2014’s Single Mothers and the forthcoming Absent Fathers, stand as the most self-assured, stylistically strongest yet. The 22-song collection was recorded together over 10 days, but Earle decided to break it into two parts for both creative and logistical reasons.

“I wrote it to be a double record, but then I thought about how many double records in the past 20 years I’ve wanted to listen to all the way through,” he tells Folio Weekly. “I’ve never made a record over 35 minutes, and I did that for a very specific reason: That’s the average commute to work, and people listen to music in their cars.”

Taken together, Single Mothers and Absent Fathers might sound like a direct rebuke of his old man. But Justin Townes Earle insists that Steve, who was definitely absent, and his mother, who was definitely single, simply represent prisms through which he’s able to relate his tale of rough-and-tumble living, drug and alcohol addiction, and eventual redemption.

Sober for six years in the late 2000s, in September 2010 he experienced a nervous breakdown and major relapse, spending a night in jail in Indianapolis. He wrote the 2011 album Harlem River Blues while on heroin and suffering from depression and didn’t get clean again until late 2011, after his 13th trip to rehab. In 2013, Earle settled into domestic bliss, marrying the woman he says he’s waited for his entire life. The newly mature outlook suffuses Absent Mothers.

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