Youthful honkytonker to play Second Street Live (updated with concert review)

concert review by Peter Lewis

At the outset of the show Thursday night, Justin Townes Earle informed the audience that they would be playing “hillbilly music.” Earle certainly followed through and then some on his musical promise. Accompanied by a fiddle and a mandolin, Earle strummed out an hour and half worth of songs that ran the gamut of Americana. From the promised “hillbilly” tunes to lonesome honky tonk numbers, his talent for roots music was on full display.

Earle had a unique stage presence. At six and a half feet tall he chooses to keep his microphone at an inadequate height for his frame. Stooped over the microphone as a result, he comes off seeming almost endearingly awkward as a performer. This was most evident in his humorous stage banter (unfortunately most of which seemed to float over the heads of the audience). From past infatuations with methadone clinic employees to a story of youthful hi-jinks, there was a droll introduction for each tune.

As the progeny of a quite famous musician (Steve Earle), comparison is inevitable. Vocally he is definitely an Earle. There is a noticeable homogeneity between the two voices. The elder Earle's voice is noticeably thicker and grittier. Age and experience has surely hardened Steve's voice yet even his early work seems to register an octave deeper than Justin's.

Though there were obvious similarities, Earle was more reminiscent of his secondary namesake Townes Van Zandt. Earle, like Van Zandt, seems to have a penchant for darker tones in his songwriting. This was quite evident in songs like "Faraway in Another Town" and "Lone Pine Hill." The former bemoans the dispiriting loneliness of being in a deficient relationship (“I got to get out while I still can because that woman doesn't do nothin' but bring me down/So I think I can be lonesome faraway in another town”). While the latter is both a dark lament of the destruction of nature in the name of resources (“...but then they knocked down the timber and burned off the brush to get to the riches below/and when they pulled out they left the cold black ground and one pine standin' alone”) and a disillusioned Confederate soldier (“...cause I've never known a man that's ever owned another and ain't never owned nothin' of my own/so after four long years I just can't tell you what the hell I've been fighting for”).

Despite being initially hampered by slight issues with the lighting and sound systems, the band had hit their stride by the fourth song of the set. They never turned back. Playing a wide range of songs, from a Van Zandt cover about cards ("Mr. Gold and Mr. Miudd") to a great (semi-fictional) song about a train ("The Ghost of Virginia"), Justin Townes Earle and his two band mates provided a virtuoso performance. It was one that highlighted just how astonishingly self-deprecatory their supposed label of hillbilly music really was.

story by Peter Lewis and photos courtesy of Bloodshot Records

Justin Townes Earle, son of famed Americana musician Steve Earle, is bringing his unique brand of music to the Fort Smith Event Center — 12 N. 11th St. — on Dec. 11. The show begins at 7:30 p.m., and tickets can be purchased for $45 at the door. Student tickets are available for $25 for those students under 21 with valid ID.

Earle’s appearance is part of Second Street Live's ongoing concert series.

Though his music is best described as a modern take on “old timey music,” it does not give proper justice to Earle. Combining elements of country and Appalachian bluegrass, Earle's work is perhaps most reminiscent of Gram Parson's promulgated vision of “Cosmic American Music.”

Justin Townes Earle albumThe Good Life, Earle’s first full length album, was released earlier this year by Bloodshot Records. An earlier album, Yuma, originally self-released by Earle, was re-released this year by Bloodshot. Link here for more information about both albums. 

Second Street Live

Second Street Live is a non-profit performing arts organization whose stated goal, according to executive director Dick Renko, is to “serve artist, audience, and community.” While their venue at 101 N. Second St. awaits completion, the organization uses the Event Center space through their monthly concert series.

The new theater is scheduled to open in the fall of 2009 and will seat between 250-270. Modeled after other successful theater/art galleries, officials with Second Street Live hope to create an intimate setting for the community that provides high-quality art and entertainment. It is also hoped that the diverse line of programming scheduled to be implemented will further enrich the lives of the community on many levels.

Interview with Justin Townes Earle

Peter Lewis: You grew up in Nashville, right? Obviously that has to influence your career in some way but I know you played in a hard rock band. Was that a sort of rebellion?

JTE: I think there is a common misconception that The Distributors band was a hard rocking band. It wasn’t. It was much more like The Band. It was real musical stuff. That was just kinda something I did for a really short period. Since I was 15-years-old I’ve been playing music that was really steeped in old blues or ragtime. It took me about six months to realize that I wasn’t having any fun, so I quit.

I guess you obviously feel a lot more at home with your current style. You’ve really embraced roots music.

JTE: I have a lot more fun doing this. It’s what comes natural. It suits my personality a little bit better. I’ve always been kinda showman. I like to show my ass and act out and that goes really well this type of music in the live performances.

Obviously your dad is a very famous musician and you were named in honor of Townes van Zandt. It seems like you have really embraced that persona. If you don’t mind, could you talk a little bit about what that is like having a sort of double familial onus as a musician?

JTE: I think the key to it is that you don’t put very much thought into it. The moment that you start thinking that has anything to do with anything then you are in a lot of trouble. All I want to do is be able to make great records. I am extremely proud of my middle and last name. And I’m big fans of both, but their careers are nothing to base my career off of. I take a different approach. I go for more of a honky tonk flavor than they do. I get a little more traditional.

Speaking of honky tonks, do you enjoy touring quite a bit? Or are you reluctant to go out on the road?

JTE: I’ve been on and off the road since I was 16 years old. I’ve never really made money any other way other than the illicit and illegal behavior that I’ve profited off of in the past. It’s the only thing I know how to do. I don’t do well at home. I get really tired out here on the road and think I want to go home but it usually takes me about three days and I want to be out on the road again.

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In terms of influences outside of say your father or Townes, are there any albums or artists that you really revere?

JTE: I’m a massive George Jones fan. Especially early George Jones, like the 50s George stuff when he was writing everything and the songs were just great and he was singing great. But then I’ve got my songwriters, my Shane McGowan’s and Cowboy Jack Clement and stuff like that that come into play. My musical taste is pretty all over the place. I think that’s the thing that keeps me safe from ever being pigeonholed into a genre.

Do you find it difficult to write songs or is it something that you feel comes natural to you?

Justin Townes EarleJTE: You know, I found it very difficult for many years but I think that it ... I just had to quit trying to write the great American folk song and just write songs. I wrote a lot more in the past, say six years ago, but I wasn’t keeping but half of it. Now I only write 10 or 12 songs a year, sometimes more. I’d say on average 13 or 14 songs a year but I keep them all. I'm a bad cocktail napkin writer. I never sit down really and write. I like to overwrite and edit basically. So, I just keep writing and writing until I think I'm at a point that I can face it on the notepad and start piecing it out.

Do you have any particular advice, maybe for other artists or people that might want to branch out and find their own inner voice? Perhaps something that has worked for you?

JTE: As far as songwriting and all that goes, the rules that I was told by my father and that were passed down to him were to just read. Read, read, read. If you can't put anything in, nothing comes out. And I think especially these days we're lucky because we have a lot more examples of it. I think there are records that people should own. You should definitely have an intimate understanding of Woody Guthrie. You should have an intimate understanding of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, and Bob Dylan's Freewheelin. If you do then I think you're gonna be alright as a songwriter. As long as you can listen to those records all the way through and kinda get an idea of what they were getting at then I think you'll be just fine.

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....and the eclectic

....and the eclectic harmonica by bandmate Cory was the cherry on top. Great article!-N