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Justin Townes Earle wrestles his demons and wins

By Brian Baker, May 2011

Oh, the trouble Justin Townes Earle has seen. The 29-year-old singer/songwriter's well publicized drug-and-alcohol problems over the years have resulted in several stints in rehab, the most recent being last fall after an altercation at an Indianapolis venue which necessitated Earle's return to treatment and the cancellation of his tour. Thankfully, Earle is doing well these days.

"I'm doing good, health-wise," says Earle from his Nashville home. "I've got a lot of things straightened out, and I'm working on others. I never shy away from telling people this is an incredibly hard business to be good in."

That's a vast improvement for Earle, whose substance issues were so bad at one point that his father, Steve Earle, removed his son from his position as guitarist with his backing band. When you go too far for a guy whose own drug-and-alcohol appetite earned him a prison stint in the mid-'90s, you know you've seriously crossed a line. At the same time, father has offered some invaluable advice to son.

"He just told me to always stay honest with myself," says Earle. "To know who I am and where I stand and to let that reflect in my art, and I'd always be okay if I did that."

With a good nine months of sobriety under his belt, Earle is ready to resume roadwork behind "Harlem River Blues," one of the best albums in his impressive four-album catalog. Given the nearly universally positive reception that was lavished upon its predecessor, 2009's "Midnight at the Movies," exemplified by Earle's Americana Music Award for Emerging Artist that year, it's conceivable that he might have tried to over think his follow up. Luckily, Earle has never approached his next project by analyzing the one before it.

Justin Townes Earle performs

"‘Midnight at the Movies' was just one more thing I wanted to do, which was researching what you can mix with old patterns and forms of music," says Earle. "It was like figuring out different formulas, and I think it was important to get that over before I did ‘Harlem River' because it gave me a lot more firm of a stance when I went in to make it."

Earle had very definite ideas about his fourth album, so definite that, in a rare case of creative specificity, he wrote the songs in the exact order that they appear on the album. He even shuffled the order a couple of times to make sure he had it right from the start, which he did.

"I write records to be records, so ‘Harlem River Blues' was ‘Harlem River Blues' before I was finished," says Earle. "I actually wrote ‘Harlem River Blues' in sequence. It was something I wanted to do. I went through and kind of Rubik's Cubed it a little bit, but it worked out that the original running order was the one. It's pretty much exactly like I wanted it. I'm very specific when I go in the studio. I take the Bruce Springsteen stance; if I'm not happy, nobody's happy."

At least part of what Earle wanted to accomplish with "Harlem River Blues" was an examination of the intersection between traditional sacred music and contemporary secular music. Like his father before him, Earle is a voraciously curious musicologist.

"I wanted to search for the connections between gospel music and modern music, so before I started making my record, I chose two sources to take from; the Carter Family and the Staple Singers," says Earle. "What you're dealing with there is music that began in the church and then moved into the secular audience. I'm one of those firm believers that American music, in all its forms, was created in church. I guarantee you the first place Hank Williams sang was in church. I think that's very important, to understand that it all started with praise to God."

Earle's writing process was discernibly different on this project than his methodology on his first three albums. With "Harlem River Blues," he wrote with a clearer purpose and a concrete vision of the album's outcome.

"I think every time I write a record, I expand a tiny touch," Earle notes. "I was definitely more firm in my writing on ‘Harlem River Blues.' There was not a whole lot of editing or as much second guessing; I kind of knew what needed to go where when we started. And that's something that came from the process of making my other records."

Although Earle has clearly made a quartet of very distinct albums - 2007's "Yuma," 2008's "The Good Life," 2009's "Midnight at the Movies" and last year's "Blues" - he sees all of them traversing a specific creative arc that have led him to this particular point on his path. And he knows the next album will be driven, in very significant ways, by what he has experienced on all of its predecessors.

"With ‘Yuma,' I was doing my Woody Guthrie thing, with ‘The Good Life,' I was exorcising my honky tonk demons, with ‘Midnight at the Movies,' I was seeing where I could push on the edge of old music and with ‘Harlem River Blues,' I was gunning for a goal for the first time," says Earle. "And I think it worked out. I'm very pleased that I've never made a record that I hate. And I know a lot of songwriters who have made a lot of records that they hate."

If there is a consistency across Earle's four diverse albums, it's their creator's propensity for simultaneously writing and arranging. Earle hears the intricacies of his songs as easily as he hears the melody.

"When I write, I do it so slow that I tend to produce the track in my head," says Earle with a laugh. "It's one thing where severe ADD comes in handy. I have like a Rolodex spinning in my head constantly. I hear bass parts and drum parts and horn parts going in my head, and that's what I walk in the studio with. I present it to my players, and they tweak it and tell me what's going to rub where, and we go from there. It is kind of frightening but I don't have big crazy ideas like a lot of artists. I try to keep my goals obtainable."

Earle is already well into the process of making his fifth album, which he hopes to begin recording this fall, and as he reflects on his career to date, it's hard to ignore the echo of his father's fiercely independent creative attitude in his musings.

"Just because I've achieved some success, it doesn't mean that I've arrived anywhere," he says. "We're still traveling, still searching, still trying that next thing, the next step. That's one thing I've taken from my father. As soon as you stop learning, you stop being creative."