Justin Townes Earle: Light at the End of the Tunnel

Music Features Justin Townes Earle
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Justin Townes Earle released Single Mothers, one of the best albums of 2014, just four months ago in September. This week he’s back with another 10-song album, Absent Fathers, which is just as good. It’s not merely the complementary titles and closely bunched release dates that mark these two discs as a matched pair. There are also the parallel photos: on each cover a young man in a thrift-store shirt, denims, black-frame glasses and broad-brimmed hat stands next to a tall, thin young woman with long blonde hair. On Absent Fathers, it’s clearly Earle in the photo. On Single Mothers, the photo suggests a younger Earle, but it’s actually his protégé, the teenage Utah singer/songwriter Sammy Brue.

And then there’s the music. All 20 songs came out of the same Nashville sessions with the same band: Earle on acoustic guitar, Paul Niehaus on electric guitar and pedal steel, Mark Hedman on bass and Matt Pence on drums. The sound is the same kind of relaxed country blues, a music of mixed-race parentage and Southern character, that Earle settled into on his 2010 album, Harlem River Blues, and perfected on 2012’s Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. The lyrics on the two new releases present the same kind of unsparing look at his personal life that Earle has often pursued. So why release them as two separate albums?

“I tried to think of how many double records have been released in the past 20 years that I have the patience to listen to all the way through,” Earle replies, “and there weren’t many. I heard that Lucinda Williams was coming out with a double album, and I’m not ballsy enough to go toe-to-toe with Lucinda. Plus everything was in such a rush; this record should have been out a while ago, and it was easier to just get the first one done and out.”

Despite the new albums’ titles, only one of the 20 songs deals explicitly with the issue of absent fathers and single mothers—and how the former create the latter. On “Single Mothers,” over a loping bass line and laid-back blues melody, Earle sings that such a woman often blames the missing father, and “you’d be hard pressed to find someone to tell her she’s wrong.” On the high-arcing melody of the bridge, Earle adds, “Every time you tell a lie, someone could be watching you.” The implication is that Earle was once that little kid watching his parents quarrel and learning all the wrong lessons.

“I think human beings’ relationships are a direct result of the relationship we grow up seeing,” he says. “If you have a father, you can be like your father or do the opposite—and it’s difficult to do the opposite, especially early on. What we believe of love is what we see of it. And there are too many marriages of convenience out there. In my case, I got the right idea of what a man should be, but I never had an example I could imitate. A single mother can tell her son what a man should be, but she can’t show you. It’s like a politician who can tell you we need war, but won’t show you how he’d fight in one.”

Most of the other songs are about romantic relationships gone bust, but these stories are haunted by the ghosts of single mothers and absent fathers whose own relationships had shattered a generation before. For the most part, the parents aren’t mentioned explicitly, but album titles make the listener alert to the flickering ghosts in the songs’ darker corners.

Two songs after the title track on Single Mothers comes “Today and a Lonely Night,” as desolate a cry of despair as we heard in 2014. Abandoned by his lover in a small Manhattan apartment, the narrator can’t sleep in the early morning hours of a snowy night. When the subway shakes the floor, he feels the rattle of the break-up all over again. He realizes that the only light in the apartment is coming from the street outside, and with his loneliness underlined by a descending steel guitar figure, he realizes he’s never seen a love that lasted long enough to trust.

During the next song, “Picture in a Drawer,” the same narrator is on the phone to his mother. The Johnny Cash train rhythm of the previous song is gone, leaving just Appalachian guitar picking and a sighing steel guitar. His mother’s the first person he’s talked to in days, but he doesn’t want to talk about the woman who’s gone. “There’s nothing you can help; you’ll be the first to know when I start to come around. I’m not drowning; I’m just seeing how long I can stay down.”

“About three or four years ago,” he reveals, “I’d gone through a terrible breakup, and I was not doing good with life. I wrote the songs for the first record after that, when I’d lost my faith in women, when I believed that marriage was only for convenience, when I believed that loneliness was all there is.

“When I met my wife, my mind was changed, and I wrote the songs for the second album right before we got married, and we’ve been married for over a year now. I was seeing things differently, so there’s a hint of light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s a pinprick. No one’s going to get ‘Walking on Sunshine’ out of me, but I’m not going to turn into Leonard Cohen either.”

The optimism on Absent Fathers comes only in dribs and drabs. The first track, “Farther from Me,” addresses someone who might be an absent father. Over the slap of drum brushes and jangly electric guitar fills, Earle sings, “You won’t break my heart again. You broke it once; I was too young and it didn’t mend, I’ve suffered for your foolish heart and your desperate need, now after all this time you’re still slipping farther from me.”

“That song is talking to a lot of different people,” Earle claims. “It’s a song about abandonment and realizing that, yes, this is my mother and my father and there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s about giving up on understanding the other person. You’ve tried all you can try, and it’s not being reciprocated, and you have to admit the other puzzle pieces belong to someone else. You can let this affect your entire life, but what are you going to do about it? Am I going to go back in time and stand in front of my father and shake my finger at him and tell him to be a better father?”

Earle’s public exploration of these issues is complicated by the fact that his father is a public figure himself: Steve Earle, one of the best singer/songwriters of the Baby Boomer generation. Steve broke up with Carole Ann Hunter Earle, his third wife and Justin’s mother, when their son was very young. Much later Steve tried to make up for lost time by hiring Justin for the road band but then had to fire him for drug abuse. Justin has referenced his father in several songs and many more interviews but claims that his dad has never objected.

“No one’s been offended by it yet,” Justin claims. “My mother and father know they’ve had a huge effect on me. I’ve never said anybody’s name, and I’ve never laid our specific scenarios. My father, during his career, has done the same thing; if anything, he’s been a little more bold. There’s nothing artistic about diary entries. You have to know the difference between emotions and emotional songs. It’s an easily misunderstood line.

“And it’s not like my parents were the only single mothers and absent fathers in the world. I grew up in Nashville in a relatively poor neighborhood, probably because it was full of musicians. Unfortunately, musicians create a lot of single mothers and bastard children. So the song’s not necessarily about my mother; it’s about single mothers, and no one can deny they have their back up against the wall.”

Joshua Black Wilkins has shot the cover photo of every album Justin Townes Earle has ever released, and every photo has had a woman in it—and Wilkins insisted that woman couldn’t be someone Justin was sleeping with unless it was his wife. Amanda Shires, for example, was on the cover of 2008’s The Good Life, and Nashville teenager Kylie Cook poses with Brue on Single Mothers. For Absent Fathers, Justin was finally able to pose with a wife, the newlywed Jenn Marie Earle.

The second half of the album tracks the resurrection of Justin’s faith in romance. “When the One You Love Loses Faith” is a 6/8 R&B ballad that responds to a relationship crisis by vowing “to sort it out.” “Slow Monday” is a finger-snapping blues that declares, “I got a good woman, but she’s stubborn as hell.” “Looking for a Place To Land” is a pretty ballad, just voice and acoustic guitar, that compares the singer to an airplane. He’s crossed oceans and mountains, but now the fuel is low and the engines are choking up. He’s looking for an airstrip, a relationship where he can come safely back to earth.

“You’re going to have those tendencies your parents gave you,” Justin confesses, “but there is always room to add some things to it. Just because those tendencies were destructive in the past doesn’t mean they have to remain destructive. Yes, I’m my father’s son, but I’m proving to be a good husband. My father and a lot of other people are driven by something in life that means more to them than love. There’s nothing in the world that means more to me than my wife. I know I could become a bitch if my career goes to hell, but I know I’ll be okay if I have her.”

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