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Justin Townes Earle spends "Midnight at the Movies"

By Rick Cornell, March 2009

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You can get taken if you assume that all first-person songs are about the writer. But here you get the feeling that this one is as autobiographical as they come, a notion that Earle confirms with a "Yeah, it's all me." And he then proceeds to not just crack a window on the song, but throw it wide open. "People think I'm like some kind of asexual product of Steve Earle. They forget that I do have a mother, and since my father was a touring musician, she probably raised me," says Earle. "It's something that needed to be said; the record needed to be set straight. I mean, I'll always be my father's son. I'll never try to remove myself from that, ever, because I believe very deeply in family. But, as much as I am my father's son, I'll always, first and foremost, be my mother's boy. Always. I just wanted to make sure that was known, for Mama's sake."

Nothing else on "Midnight at the Movies" is as deeply personal or packs as much of an emotional wallop. After all, Mama's Eyes sets a damn high bar. But the surrounding cuts all do deliver one way or another. Leading off the record is Midnight at the Movies, an atmospheric pop song that's considerably more Rufus Wainwright than it is Loudon III. "We couldn't think of anyplace else to put it," Earle explains about the title track. "It just didn't make sense anywhere else, except right on the front end."

It works well, announcing right from the top that he's not interested in being confined in any one stylistic box, and it's a claim supported by all that follows. For instance, They Killed John Henry splits the difference between talking blues and classic folk-song structure, while Poor Fool is Thumper Jones turning into George Jones. Someday I'll Be Forgiven for This is probably the closest echo of his father that the young Earle has put on record (well, at least until the closer, Here We Go Again), but there's still no question whose song it is and whose personality serves as its engine.

The lone cover is The Replacements' Can't Hardly Wait, a tune that Earle has been doing live for years, ever since a 2000 tour with Marah in which the kids from Philly leaned on it as one of their encores. As he talks about Can't Hardly Wait, you learn that Earle really was a little rock and roller, or at least a precocious listener. "I was born in 1982," he offers. "So, by the time I was old enough to recognize the sounds that came out of a radio, The Replacements were all over it. That '86-'89 period."

Pleased with his timing, Earle rattles off others from that time frame that made an impression, a somewhat surprising list: "The Fine Young Cannibals, which was a great, great record. The Proclaimers, who made great records. And there was that first George Michael record. That was a great record. Anybody who doesn't like that Faith recording - you can say what you want about George Michael, but that's a great-sounding record."

Near the end of "Midnight at the Movies" is a pair of songs that have been around for over a decade. Halfway to Jackson, its yearning harmonica and relentless rattle making it the musical equivalent of a leaving train, is the first song that Earle ever wrote, penned when he was 15. He wrote Walk Out - a prime example of the jazzy, almost vaudeville-ish country that was an early calling card of his - a year later.

Earle was always was ahead of the curve, for better or worse. There's his well-documented several-year-tour of various stages of Hell (cue the opening line of Mama's Eyes) as he struggled with drug addiction, and the aborted record deal and the near-death experiences that accompanied it. There's also the equally well-documented, self-imposed pressure to live up to not one but two names: his middle name, a tribute to the brilliant but haunted Townes Van Zandt, in addition to his last. All of that is now behind him. It's not necessarily a strategy you'd recommend for anyone, but Earle got all the nonproductive, potentially lethal stuff out of the way young, paving the way for a singular focus on his art.

"My music is about life experiences. And if I'm f--ked up, I'm not having any life experiences. I'm not remembering them, anyway," states Earle, sober for five years now. And he says it in the same manner that he seems to say everything: matter of factly. "I read about a lot of my heroes, and, yeah, they were drunks, and they were assholes. But I've come to the realization that you don't have to be an asshole or a drunk to be a good songwriter. You can actually be a pretty normal person." He pauses for a short laugh. "Well, not normal. You still have got to be crazy to want to get into this business."

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