Justin Townes Earle discusses songwriting and the future of Nashville
I had every intention of talking to Justin Townes Earle about his two newest albums – I really did.
But when you’re speaking with a musician who thinks on his toes, has strong opinions on just about anything you can think of and has a past loaded with interesting stories, it’s hard to plan for the direction of an interview.
Earle has been busy the last few years, working on and releasing two different albums in the span of five months – the September release Single Mothers, and January’s Absent Fathers. Single Mothers revolves around themes of growing up in a single parent household with his mother, Carol Anne Hunter Earle, all over his hometown of Nashville, TN, while Absent Fathers deals with relationship issues with his famous dad – the songwriter extraordinaire Steve Earle.
The younger Earle has steadily developed his own solid songwriting chops, looking to the past for inspiration, all while living by his own manta for the best way to pen a song – “Pay attention to Woody Guthrie, and you’ll figure it out.”
It’s Earle’s past that has had the biggest influence his songwriting, previously writing about everything from his struggles with substance abuse in “Harlem River Blues” and “Slippin’ and Slidin’” to the contemplation of hard choices and the consequences of them in “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven” and “Movin’ On.” On his two latest albums, he builds on the themes of his own emotional experiences in songs like “Picture in a Drawer” and “Farther from Me,” while also taking a stab at a fictionalized story surrounding the great Billie Holiday in “White Gardenias.”
Earle comes to the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center in York tonight. I caught up with him as he was traveling through the middle of Nebraska on Interstate 80, driving from Park City, Ut., with his newlywed, Jenn Marie, to their home in Nashville. We talked about his love of antiques (he buys and sells them on the side), his disgust with the gentrification of Nashville and his absolute disdain for country star John Rich of Big & Rich (the creators of songs like “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” and “Comin’ to Your City”).
Michael Yoder: How long is the drive from Utah to Nashville?
Justin Townes Earle: I think 22 hours – maybe 24 if you stop a lot. But me and my wife love to do shit like this. It’s not something where we go “ugh” about. We [make stops] when we have time, but that’s definitely not something that we have right now. But every year, we do have a season pass to national parks, which is one of our favorite things.
MY: Do you ever find any good antique stores along the way?
JTE: Oh, absolutely. It’s something – without question – that I will hunt for. It’s become one of those things where I’ve turned out to be pretty good at [finding things]. You need a backup plan in the music industry – I don’t care who you think you are. Antiques and antique jewelry – that’s my plan.
MY: What kinds of antiques do you look for?
JTE: Furniture, and I buy a lot of little things. I bought a little coin bank made of tin that you put dimes in and it won’t open until there’s $5 worth of dimes in it. I bought it for about $5, and it turned out it was worth $200. Tons of cast-iron figures and things like that. I’m the proud owner of a genuine John James Audubon large 4×3 print of parrots – like a first-run print. I bought it for $50 in Florida in the Panhandle near Pensacola. Over the years, I’ve discovered that places like Cape Girardeau, Mo., have amazing antiques there. Their downtown is nothing but antique stores. And then I know a bunch of places that I don’t give away.
MY: When you were working on your most recent albums, was it always your intention to release Single Mothers first, or did you debate releasing Absent Fathers first?
JTE: No, Single Mothers was always going to be first. Single Mothers was written first – months before Absent Fathers. I did kind of smooth the edges out some of the songs from Single Mothers, and I wrote it at first – not 100 percent on it, but 50 percent – to maybe be a double record. But I just didn’t think that was a wise idea right now. Lucinda [Williams] did it, and I definitely stand in a place where I know for sure that I don’t have the captive audience that she does. So it’s a lot to ask of people – especially when you’re still being discovered – to listen to an entire double record. I write my records to be records; there’s never extra songs. All the songs on each of the records were written to be on those records. I take that part very, very seriously. When I made my first record, I looked up what the average commute time for an American to work was. It’s 35 minutes, so I made my record 35 minutes long. All of them are less than 40 minutes.
MY: Is it frustrating being a songwriter in the ADD generation of short attention spans?
JTE: I think that today it’s mistaken as ADD, but we have way more flashing around us than they did in the 1950s, so it makes it a lot harder. On a documentary that I watched about Teddy Roosevelt – and this makes sense – is that if he was alive today, they would have medicated the shit out of him and put him on Ritalin, and we probably would have never have heard of him.
“I write my records to be records; there’s never extra songs. All the songs on each of the records were written to be on those records. I take that part very, very seriously.”
MY: So it’s the distractions that make it more difficult?
JTE: Yeah, pop music has drifted so far from its roots. I mean, think about people like Buddy Holly. They were the biggest stars. God, that’s incredible. Originality is gone or very hard to obtain, but it doesn’t even seem like people attempt it. They just Auto-Tune shit and go.
MY: Do you still follow the mantra about paying attention to what Woody Guthrie did and you’ll figure out songwriting?
JTE: Oh, yeah. That’s 101 – the very first lesson and the most important, as far as I’m concerned. It’s right there with writing what you know. That’s very important stuff, because Woody Guthrie is definitely the beginning of the singer/songwriter. Well, not the beginning of it, but the first white version of it, so it got a larger audience. It had been done in the black community forever, but as far as what I do and what I can relate to, Woody Guthrie was the beginning of it. I realized, “Hey, I can do this, because he talks like I do.” He makes all the difference as the guide. No matter what I do, when I’m done and no matter how great I think it is, I go back and think, “What would Woody Guthrie think about this?”
MY: So do you look to some of Woody’s methods of songwriting of searching for a universal commonality – if there is a commonality to be found?
JTE: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s very important to do. I mean, I don’t have a good education. I have an eighth-grade education, I can’t spell, my handwriting’s terrible. I’m dyslexic – I have to go through my shit and fix it all the time. So it’s one of those things that I’m not better than anyone else. I don’t have this high education that makes me smarter. I used to wear these $2,000 suits on stage, and when I quit wearing those suits is when I felt more of a part of my audience and not something that loomed overhead of them. Poor white trash from middle Tennessee – I’m inherently nothing to look up to, that’s for sure [laughs].
MY: You just wrote the song “White Gardenias” about Billie Holiday. Any chance you’ll write some songs in the future about some of the musical characters you’ve encountered in Nashville?
JTE: There’s a high chance of that. The Nashville characters were so prevalent in my life. Tennessee Ernie Ford was all over the place. When I was a kid, there was the Ernest Tubbs record shop. Bobby Bare had a store next to it that sold teddy bears and shit like that. Those people stick in my head. I always try to base the form of how I sing on the microphone on Porter Wagoner. He worked a mic better than anybody.
MY: You’ve been pretty outspoken about the physical changes going on in Nashville right now. Is there anything you see that will save the legacy and the history of the town before it completely disappears?
JTE: No, I don’t think there will be enough people to step up to the plate. There are people actually saying that, “Oh well, Nashvillians absolutely enjoy their newfound reputation.” And that pisses me off so bad because it’s like, what’s wrong with being the home of country music? What’s wrong with home of the Grand Ole Opry? What’s wrong with the legacy that we had? Nobody thinks about that legacy anymore. I mean, I am a huge George Strait fan, but that’s classic country to people now. It’s so bizarre. I don’t think a lot of country fans these days have ever even heard Hank Williams, and that’s really bizarre to me.
MY: I’m always amazed when I mention a historical musician I assume everyone knows, and some people have no idea who I’m talking about.
JTE: Nashville, too – I don’t think there’s going to be anything really good left because they’re just ripping everything down at a rate that astounds me. It’s going quicker than any other city I go to, and that’s a lot of cities. They tore down a 20-block area in downtown Nashville that had a lot of cool old buildings to build this thing that looks like a flying saucer right in the middle of downtown – a convention center. But they forgot to book conventions. There’s barely anything going on it, while our old so-called “inefficient” convention center – which is not a giant eyesore – runs like a top. So, woo-hoo on Nashville business. They make terrible decisions. It’s money-grubbing. They paid something like $3 million to the people who made Nashville when they said they were going to take the show off the air. It’s fucking ridiculous. They do not give a shit. I’ve said this before – as Nashvillians, we are not fun-loving, happy people who go out all the time and have this great time. We’re poor, we’re bitter – especially because of what they’re doing to our city. I didn’t grow up around any fucking flashy country stars. It seems like half of L.A. has emptied into Nashville. It’s disgusting. Nashville was a small town where people said, “How ya’ doin’?” when you walked past them. Now they look at you like you’re insane. And, of course, they just let it happen. A hundred years ago, they would have shut it the fuck down. Nobody was going to tear down old cool buildings to put in a convention center. It’s just a complete disrespect for the past and a really astounding un-want to learn.
MY: If you could fight John Rich Mad Max-style in the Thunderdome, what would be your weapon of choice?
JTE: I think a .45 caliber pistol would be the best way to go with that. I think I would probably just wound him fairly badly. If he hit me – let’s just say it’s not good to hit me. I may be skinny, but I’m an animal when I get into a fight. And there’s no such thing as a dirty fight – it’s a fight. So, yeah, I’d rather not waste my time and just bust a cap in his ass.
MY: One of my worst live music viewing experiences ever was seeing Big & Rich perform outside of The Today Show in New York 10 years ago. I think they sang “Comin’ to Your City” a half-dozen times in a row.
JTE: I will say this – Big Kenny [Alphin] is one of the sweetest people on Earth. I’ve known him for a long time. But how he stands John Rich, I have no clue. That’s a Napoleonic, depressed, self-loathing little cocksucker.
CapLive presents Justin Townes Earle at the Strand-Capitol (50 N. George St., York) tonight. Gill Landry (of Old Crow Medicine Show) opens. 8pm. $24. 21+. Click here for tickets. CapLive hosts a pre-party (free) in the Strand lobby from 6-7:30pm featuring ping pong, cornhole, a cash bar and live music from Anastasia’s Outlook.