Nashville-based Americana pioneer Justin Townes Earle has followed a meandering route of reinvention on each of his five full-length albums and lone EP. He’s moved from the classic honky tonk of 2008’s The Good Life through phases of country, rockabilly and soul along the way to 2012’s near perfect Memphis Horns-inspired Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now. And yet, in some ways, Single Mothers feels like a continuation of Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now. The mournful pedal steel (courtesy of returning guitarist Paul Niehaus) and smooth production sonically link the two records. But rather than a reinvention of his song, Single Mothers represents a renewal of self for Earle.
Single Mothers is Earle’s first record for Vagrant Records, his first as a sober man and a married man. Single Mothers is not an overtly happy record, though, as indicated by the title. Rather, it illustrates a shift in perspective in how Earle reconciles with his past—from his famous father’s abandonment to his own parallel substance abuse. He addresses his own upbringing on the title track with such poignancy as, “Absent father, oh, never offers, even a dollar / He doesn’t seem to be bothered / By the fact that he’s forfeited his right to his own, now / Absent father, is long gone now.” But Earle also digs back to his youth of listening to Billie Holiday, telling her story in his own heartbroken way on lead single “White Gardenias.” Most surprisingly, Earle seems to transform parts of his past into positive, up-tempo fun on “My Baby Drives.” While the familiar ache still haunts Single Mothers, Earle treats it with new wisdom, choosing instead to ramble forward, rather than perseverate and drift waywardly back.