Justin Townes Earle Talks Nashville, Country Lore and Finally Growing Up

With a New Album and a New Protege in Sammy Brue, the Singer Passes His Experience Down

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Justin Townes Earle Talks Nashville, Country Lore and Finally Growing Up

Steve Earle has his own radio show on SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country, and on May 20, his guest was his son, Justin Townes Earle. Steve was impressed by the bluesiness of Justin’s new album, Kids in the Street, which is out today, and recalled the first time his son got seriously interested in the blues. The unlikely vehicle for that epiphany was Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, which included the Lead Belly song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” (aka “In the Pines”).

Justin had heard the blues all the time around the house, Steve pointed out, “but you didn’t think it was cool until you saw Kurt Cobain do ‘In the Pines.’ I said, ‘Well, the Lead Belly records are over there; the Lightnin’ Hopkins are next to that, and the Mance Lipscomb records are next to that. I was actually alphabetized in those days. Is that how you remember it—that progression from Kurt Cobain to Lightnin’, Mance and Lead Belly?”

“Yeah,” said Justin on the radio, and a few days later, on the phone from a gig in Milwaukee, he expands on that event.

“Nirvana’s Unplugged record changed the way I listened to music,” he says. “There was a darkness to ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ that I really liked, but it had never dawned on me that bands might record other people’s songs. I was 12 years old then, and my favorite musicians were Dr. Dre and Nirvana. By the time I was 13, my friends were listening to nothing but hip-hop, which I loved, but I had to sneak off to listen to John Wesley Harding so my friends wouldn’t give me shit about it.”

“By the time I was 13, my friends were listening to nothing but hip hop, which I loved, but I had to sneak off to listen to ‘John Wesley Harding’ so my friends wouldn’t give me shit about it.”

It’s always fascinating how music gets passed on from one generation to the next. For a lot of teenage music lovers, they rebel against their parents by embracing the latest thing before discovering old music through the new. Earle discovered Funkadelic through Dr. Dre samples and Lead Belly through a Nirvana cover; for someone even younger, it might mean discovering Stevie Wonder via Daft Punk or Leonard Cohen via Justin Timberlake. For Earle, though, there was little rebellion involved. After all, he first heard hip-hop when his father played N.W.A. and first heard punk when his mom played The Replacements.

“I didn’t grow up in a Bobby Darin household,” Earle says with a chuckle, “though I love that stuff now. I gave up on finding my own music early on, because it was rare I could say anything about music that my mom or dad weren’t already an authority on. Part of that was growing up in Nashville, because everyone was in the music business. You couldn’t visit anyone’s house without finding a singer-songwriter on a stool in the corner.

The advantage, he said, was that he learned from an early age how music was made. But there were disadvantages, too.

“The idea of music as something magic or mysterious was never there for me” he says. “The only way you could rebel musically was to not listen at all—and I wasn’t going to do that. But I found other ways to rebel.”

Now Earle, who turned 35 in January and just released his seventh studio album, finds himself in the position of passing musical knowledge on to a younger generation. The opening act on his May/June tour of the Midwest and West Coast is 16-year-old Sammy Brue. From the time they first met in Salt Lake City six years ago, Earle has been impressed by Sammy’s songwriting and has offered as much advice as he could.

That relationship was so close—and the two singer-songwriters looked so eerily alike—that Sammy was photographed for the cover of Earle’s 2014 album, Single Mothers. Now Sammy’s debut album, I Am Nice, is set to be released June 16 by Earle’s label, New West Records.

“He was a little kid when we met,” Justin recalls, “so I’ve been able to see that kid grow up. I felt a responsibility to say the right things to him, because I got a lot of bad advice when I was young. That bad advice was an idea that is fairly common in the music industry: that once you’ve got the job, you can drink and do whatever you want. I took that advice, but I didn’t want him to.”

“The second time we met,” Brue adds from Milwaukee, “I played him a couple of songs I wrote, and he was telling me they were good. He told me a couple things to listen to. He told me to keep observing everything around me and to just have fun with it. He definitely warned me about the dangerous side of the music business. It was like a big-brother talk: ‘If you start doing this, this is what is going to happen.’”

Kids in the Street is the first album Earle has written as a married man, a circumstance he credits with “a sense of restfulness and security, because I have someone who helps me with life. I actually sat down and wrote this record rather than scribbling it on cocktail napkins.”

But out of that new-won serenity has come three powerful songs about an adolescence that was anything but serene. The album’s first video is for the song “Maybe a Moment,” a memory song about being 12, 13 or 14 and climbing in with eight other kids into an LTD Ford meant for six passengers, a car full of booze and drugs driven by a 16-year-old on a nightlong trip from Nashville to Memphis and back. Over an anthemic, march-beat folk-rock lit up by ringing guitars and a swirling R&B organ, the narrator is trying to convince a young girl to jump in, too. “It may be only a moment,” he tells her, but on the other hand it “may be the time of your life.”

Watch Justin Townes Earle perform “Maybe a Moment” in the Paste Studio:

“We were going without anybody’s permission,” Earle remembers, “going to Memphis, which is still a very rough town, not some place a parent would allow their kids go to. It could have gone very wrong, but I learned a lot. I grew up unafraid of anything. I saw adults do a lot of stupid things.”

The ambivalence of that quote—the paradox that a stupid, dangerous choice was also an invaluable experience—is reflected in all three of these memory songs. The song “15-25” is set to New Orleans funk, a wobbly, organ-fueled kind of syncopation, and the lyrics describe the 10 years of his life between the ages of 15 and 25: “lots of trouble and some good times.” He claims that he as “no regrets,” but in the next breath he admits, “I’m probably lucky that I survived,” because “I could be doing 25 to life.”

“At this stage in my life,” he adds, “I’m able to look back and see clearly that I was a dangerous, wild kid. I wasn’t music-industry arrogant, but I was definitely adolescent arrogant: ‘I can get away with anything; just watch me.’ When I say in that song, ‘I could be doing 25 to life,’ I actually could have done a lot worse than that. The person I was then contained a lot of different pieces, and some of those pieces are still here, but there’s also the need to move on. Now that I know how far I can go, I also know how far I can’t go.”

One point that Earle has hammered into his protégé is that the link between chemicals and creativity is a lie. All the intoxicants Earle took early on, all the intoxicants his father took early on, all the intoxicants other famous musicians took early or late, didn’t make them any better a writer, any better a musician. But if that’s so, why do so many musicians fall into that trap?

“The main culprits,” Earle says, “are having a lot of time on our hands and facing a lot of rejection. Songwriters in particular, like my father, have an acute sensitivity that doesn’t mesh well with the world. They’re run ragged, they’re tired, they’re lonely. At the same time, a lot of it is that it feels good in the short term.”

The third part of this song trilogy, the album’s title track, is a lament for a Nashville lost to gentrification. On this lazily paced blues with Mississippi John Hurt finger-picking, a weeping pedal steel guitar underlines the ache for Earle’s long-gone childhood streets.

“Sure, it’s looking better these days,” he sings, “but this ain’t the way it was back in 1993.” Back then, when the neighborhood was called Sevier Park, the incomes were lower and the housing more dilapidated, but there was a healthy mix of races and a vital street life—whether it was young kids playing touch football or old men playing dominoes.

“You come back to your neighborhood 15 years later,” he says, “and it’s all changed—and not for the better. I lived in a very mixed neighborhood, predominantly black, but a lot of white kids, Mexican kids, even Middle Eastern kids. It’s like that old saying: ‘We didn’t have a lot, but we had a lot of fun.’ Now it’s a lot more segregated. I don’t think people realize how important Nashville’s black neighborhoods are to country music.

“I lived in a very mixed neighborhood, predominantly black, but a lot of white kids, Mexican kids, even Middle Eastern kids. It’s like that old saying: ‘We didn’t have a lot, but we had a lot of fun.’ Now it’s a lot more segregated. I don’t think people realize how important Nashville’s black neighborhoods are to country music.”

“An apartment that I rented for $80 a month—the same apartment with nothing done to it—now rents for $2,800. The rent prices have driven working musicians almost completely out of the city and into the far east of town, out by Madison and Rivergate. They’ve ruined Lower Broadway. If you double-park on Broadway to get your instrument out for a gig that pays $100, you can get a $250 fine. There should be a law that you can’t get fined for taking your instrument out of your vehicle.”

Earle isn’t trying to glamorize poverty; he’s been far too close to it to have any illusions. But neither is he willing to glamorize fame and fortune. The healthiest life, he has concluded, is the working, lower-middle-class existence of a nurse, a shopkeeper or a musician on an independent label. He makes this point with a delicious dose of humor on the new album’s opener, “Champagne Corolla.” This revved-up, horn-blasting rockabilly number upends every musical cliché about cars. He’s not interested in the rich girl in the long, black Cadillac nor the hillbilly girl in the rusting pick-up; he wants a “middle-class queen in a champagne Corolla.”

“I thought that was pretty funny,” he confesses. “I was taking a swipe at all those people who write songs about cars they can’t drive, because they can’t use a stick shift. I wanted people to face reality for once.”

From the horns on that song to the clarinet solo on “What’s Going Wrong” to the vibraphone solo on “15-25,” Kids in the Street sounds unlike any of Earle’s previous recordings. That’s because it’s the first project he’s tackled without his crew of Nashville familiars. Initially he resisted the label’s insistence on an outside producer, but he changed his mind when he started working in Omaha with producer Mike Mogis and his musicians (Nashville’s Paul Niehaus was the only carryover).

Read Paste’s review of Justin Townes Earle’s
new album, Kids in the Street, here.

“At first, I said, ‘Fuck you, I make my own records,’” he admits. “But when I stepped back, I saw it was necessary for the art. It was time I took a look at it from somebody else’s angle. Mike’s records always sound fabulous, and he can make a lot of different instruments sound like they belong in a song. He obviously knows how to work with singer/songwriters, because he’s made every Bright Eyes record. Plus Nashville makes me sick these days; I didn’t want to walk out of the studio every day and see that.”

For all the help he’s given Brue over the past six years, Earle is glad he didn’t produce his protégé’s debut album for the same reason he’s glad he has made all of his own albums without his father, Steve. Sooner or later you have to move away from your biggest influences and establish your own identity, and it’s usually better to do that with your first record. In any case, Brue came up with two terrific producers for I Am Nice: The Civil Wars’ John Paul White and Alabama Shakes’ Ben Tanner.

“I was attracted that we were recording in Muscle Shoals,” says, a native of Oregon who lives in Ogden, Utah. “I’ve listened to a lot of things that came out of there; I’m a huge Etta James fan and a huge Aretha Franklin fan. The Muscle Shoals guys gave me that ‘60s rock feel, and I liked that because not a lot of young people have a sound that cool.”

Indeed, I Am Nice has that irresistible, mid-‘60s, garage-soul sound of the Box Tops, John Fred & the Playboys and the Young Rascals—albeit with a singer/songwriter’s acoustic guitar out front. You can hear that in Maggie Crisler’s Tex-Mex Farfisa electric organ and White’s doo-wop harmony on “Was I the Only One,” in drummer Jeremy Gibson’s skiffle beat and White’s fuzz guitar on “I’m Not Your Man,” and in Tanner’s Animals-like organ and White’s Yardbirds-like guitar on “Lay Me Down.”

“I didn’t expect to have that much fun making a record,” Brue admits. “When I walked in, I thought John Paul White would be super-serious like he is on the internet. I hate to blow his cover, but he’s a real goofball. He made sure I didn’t hate the experience. Ben is amazing on the keyboards. I’d never seen musicians like that who could write down a few things on a chart and then play the song.”

Brue’s songs are all about achieving romantic relationships that haven’t happened yet or repairing those that are broken. The lyrics fit the simple garage-rock templates, but they’re not special. What’s special are the catchy choruses that Brue comes up with for nearly every song. The first two videos, “I Know” and “I’m Not Your Man,” boast melodies so succinct and infectious that they echo in the head long after the song is over. Like the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun,” those vocal hooks are often welded to an acoustic guitar figure just as sharply defined.

Watch Sammy Brue’s recent Paste Studio session here:

Like Earle, Brue was introduced to older music by his father, Mike Thornbrue (the son’s birthname is Sam Thornbrue). The family moved from Beaverton, Oregon, to Ogden, Utah, when Brue was 9, and he felt lost—no hobbies, few friends—until he got a guitar. His two favorite songs at the time were the Avett Brothers’ “Murder in the City” and Earle’s “I Don’t Care,” both learned from the Americana albums that Mike Thornbrue played in the family car. Soon after, Brue learned that Earle was coming to Salt Lake City, only to be crushed when he learned that the show was at a 21-and-over venue.

“My dad said, ‘Let’s just go try to meet him,’” Brue remembers. “I put on my Justin outfit—my hat and buttoned-up shirt—and when we showed up he was loading in. I had him sign my guitar, which I had just gotten. I don’t know if it was weird for him to have a 10-year-old who really wanted to meet him, but he was really in a good mood. He started following me on Twitter and listening to my songs there.”

“My job now is to say, ‘Good job, kid,’ or to say, ‘Don’t do that’ or ‘No skateboards on the road.’”

“I figured out they were harmless,” Earle recalls, “so I would invite him into the dressing room each time I came to town and listen to his latest song, and they would be better than a lot of what you hear around Nashville now. He was a smart kid, a strong-willed kid, and I could see that about him. The only worry I had was ‘Damn, what’s puberty going to do to that voice?’ But it did him just fine. Now we’re friends. My job now is to say, ‘Good job, kid,’ or to say, ‘Don’t do that’ or ‘No skateboards on the road.’”

This is how old music gets turned into new music. The older generation turns the younger one onto overlooked records, and the younger ones give the old themes a new twist. There’s no better example of this than a song on Earle’s new album, “Same Old Stagolee,” which it isn’t. The music is similar, and the story still ends in the fatal shooting of Billy Lyons by Stagger Lee Shelton, based on a real-life murder in St. Louis in 1895. But like the dozens of artists who had sung the song before him—from Ma Rainey and Mississippi John Hurt to Lloyd Price and Tommy Roe, from the Grateful Dead and Wilson Pickett to Nick Cave and the Black Keys—Justin changed the story to his own taste.

“I find the process of updating folk songs very important,” he says. “Woody did it; Dylan did it; Springsteen did it. There are hundreds of versions of ‘Stagolee,’ some with different outcomes. I wanted to update the story for this day and age. In the original, a guy gets killed for knocking a Stetson hat off a guy’s head, which is kind of ridiculous. In my version, it’s about a guy pursuing the wrong girl in the wrong neighborhood. It’s about the class distinctions between different parts of town; it could’ve been set in today’s Nashville.”

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