Justin Townes Earle on Songwriting, His Idiosyncratic Fingerpicking Style, and Battling Personal Demons

Justin Townes Earle poses with a black and white guitar

[Ed. Note: Singer/songwriter Justin Townes Earle passed away on August 23, 2020, at the age of 38. Earle last sat with Acoustic Guitar’s Kenny Berkowitz for an extended conversation in 2012. Here is that interview.]

As the son of Steve Earle, Justin Townes Earle carried an enormous weight of expectation. Would he match his father’s artistry? Or would he follow his father’s darker impulses and simply self-destruct?

The answers started coming with the six-song Yuma (2007), self-released when Justin was 25 years old, and followed by The Good Life the next year, which staked out the middle ground between folk and country. He wrote with a deep love for 20th-century Americana and clearly didn’t want to sound anything like his father. He was just going to be himself, but with the albums’ mix of periods and styles, it was too early to know what that would mean.

With Justin’s second full-length album, Midnight at the Movies (2009), that vision came into sharper focus. On guitar, his technique remained deeply rooted in Travis picking, but the melodies were growing away from the simplicity of folk, and the lyrics were cutting closer to the bone. The pain was real, whether he was struggling with hopefulness (“Here We Go Again”) or betraying a lover (“Someday I’ll Be Forgiven for This”), and his writing was sharper. When he looked into the mirror on “Mama’s Eyes,” he was able to admit that “I ain’t fooling no one / I am my father’s son.”

He’d grown up in Nashville, Tennessee, living with his mother while Steve left to pursue music and fame, setting a long, painful example of a career endangered by drugs and alcohol. Following close behind, Justin overdosed for the first time as a teenager, just as he was beginning to write songs. Over the years, his father stayed in touch, extending support as Justin moved from punk to string band to a solo act, earning his own outlaw reputation for anger, excess, and addiction.

An invitation to house-sit his father’s New York City apartment gave Justin the change of scene he needed, and with the album that followed, Harlem River Blues, he grew more comfortable in his own skin. His primary folk influences—the Carter Family, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie—were still central, but he was taking them in new directions, assimilating blues, rockabilly, and gospel to build a sound that was contemporary, urban, and iconoclastic.

Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins


The Americana Music Association, which had named him 2009’s Emerging Artist of the Year, gave “Harlem River Blues” its 2010 award for Song of the Year. GQ magazine included him among the 25 Most Stylish Men in the World. He was on the verge of a commercial breakthrough, but couldn’t resist the pull of heroin and cocaine, with erratic performances on and offstage that caused him to cancel his tour and enter rehab once again.

One sober year later, he’s reemerged with Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, which is the leap he’s been trying to make all along. It’s a dark, shadowy, unsparing album that builds on his love of soul music to more directly face his demons. On the first cut, “Am I That Lonely Tonight?,” the radio voice of his father taps into a deep well of loneliness, and the feeling only continues on “Unfortunately, Anna,” about a street-walker, and “Won’t Be the Last Time,” where he sings, “When I was young / I was dumb and I was free / Now I’m getting older / And I feel this world closing in on me.”

Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins

Nothing has its share of upbeat songs too, like “Baby’s Got a Bad Idea,” but most are about loss, and the production’s boldest touch, its horn section, reinforces that slow, dragging gravity that cuts across the album. The core of the band—Bryn Davies (upright bass), Paul Niehaus (electric guitar, steel guitar), Bryan Owings (drums), Skylar Wilson (piano, organ), and Cory Younts (guitar, piano)—is tighter than ever, slowing down to support Earle in a way that allows him to be completely himself: worn, weary, and ultimately wiser. Calling from his home in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan a few days before leaving on a spring tour, Earle talked about creating the new album, developing his guitar style, and confronting the past.

How has moving to New York City affected your songwriting?
Living in lower Manhattan has made me more informed than I used to be. I’m a much more eyes-wide-open songwriter, and I think that’s a result of the city. If you let your guard down here for a minute, you’re going to miss something really great, so I carry a notepad in my pocket to make sure I don’t let anything get by. There’s so much information to be had here, and I find the city to be the most inspiring place I’ve ever been. I love the pace, the accent, the speech, everything. I came here to see the things Woody Guthrie was talking about. He saw this awe-inspiring city, and that’s exactly what I found. The art here has no boundaries.

Have you been to his house on Mermaid Avenue?
I have, once by myself and once with my dad. But it’s fairly depressing—really, you don’t walk through the nicest area getting to it, and Coney Island isn’t the marvel it was when Woody was living there.

Did you always know you were going to be a musician?
No, no. When I was young, I played soccer, up until about 13. I had scouts looking at me for high school, and it was something I seriously considered. Then I started having issues with my knees, so I went to a few doctors who told me I’d never play soccer at the professional level, my body just couldn’t take it. I was already playing in punk bands—I was into Nirvana and all that stuff—but the year I quit soccer was the same year I discovered Lead Belly, which turned my whole world upside down. After that, I didn’t want to play electric guitar anymore, I wanted to play acoustic.

Did your parents encourage you?
Well, when I was 15 years old, I decided I was done with school and was going to play music for a living. By that point, I’d been in so much trouble, everybody was pleased I was finally showing interest in something that wasn’t destructive. So yeah, both of my parents breathed a sigh of relief. My dad said, “If you’re like me, this is the only chance you’ve got.” So I took it, and they’ve been behind me every step of the way—my mom with plenty of encouragement and my father with plenty of advice, some of it valid, some of it not.

What did you inherit from them?
I think like my mom a lot, and I have the gentleness she offers, which helps smooth out some of the rough edges I get from my father. My temper, my sharp tongue, I get from him—but he also gave me my ability with the English language.

I was about two when they split, so I grew up with my mother, and I don’t remember a house with my mom and my dad living together. They got divorced in 1984, and I think my dad was married three more times before 1994. During that period, his career took off and then plummeted. First I lost him to the fame, then to the drugs. When he got sober, he went back to work, and that became his new thing, putting out a record a year after he got clean. We don’t see each other all that much, because we’re both touring, but we talk. Actually, I’m going to see him today, he lives in the West Village, a little north of me.


When did you start writing songs?
I had written poetry as a kid, and I’d written some smashy, trashy songs for this band I was in, but mainly we were doing covers. Then I heard Lead Belly, which led me to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, who really amazed me, and that led me to Woody Guthrie, which was when I said, “That sounds like me.” I understood what he was talking about, and that’s when I really started writing. I didn’t keep anything till I was about 15, but three of those songs I wrote between 15 and 16—“Halfway to Jackson,” “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving,” “South Georgia Sugar Babe”—later made it onto record. I wrote a shitload of songs back then, and those were the only three that made it out.

What was wrong with the ones that didn’t?
They just weren’t ready. They were the practice tries, the ones where I learned. I was already accustomed to the process of writing, and I enjoyed it, but I got a particular jolt from songwriting, so I did it all the time. I remember when I’d run away from home and I was living with two other songwriters in Johnson City, Tennessee. I was waking up every morning at 7:00, hung over, making a cup of coffee, and sitting down with my guitar. Writing for six hours, then taking a little nap, getting up, and writing some more. Then at night, we’d all get together and play.  I wrote constantly, constantly, constantly. I needed that, because it was through that trial and error that I found the kind of writer that I am.

How does the new album feel different from the ones that came before?
It’s definitely a more medium-paced record, with a much softer approach than I’ve had in the past. I found a new place in my stomach to sing from, which allows me more range, movement, and control. So I’m singing a lot softer and closer to the mic, and I think that intimacy really shows.

I hear a major shift in vulnerability. Do you hear it, too?
Yeah, I do. When I wrote Harlem River Blues, I was in a state of rebellion, because I’d started drinking again. I didn’t care, and I think that record really shows it. You know, when I get like that, when I’m using and drinking heavily, I’m shut off. Completely. Like there’s a wall up. To get to me, you’ve got to get through the wall and then through my hard head. It was a dark point in my life that I took in a very cavalier way, as I usually do. The new album is definitely the cleaned-up, straighter-thinking me, dealing with the damage that was done over the last year, because I did a lot. It’s amazing how much damage I can do in a short period of time.

How is the process of songwriting different now that you’re sober?
It’s a lot faster. Two weeks before going into the studio, I had five unfinished songs. I had to really buckle down and get them done, and I was able to do that—compared to Harlem River Blues, when I hadn’t even finished writing the title track when we walked through the door to make the record. Going in to record this album, I was a lot more comfortable, more at ease, more sure of what I could do.

What was a hard song to write?
“Unfortunately, Anna” was pretty difficult, because I was trying to capture what the hell this girl is doing walking the streets. When people hear it, they think she’s made out to be the fucked-up one, for lack of a better term. But really, what is this guy doing, driving around in the rain looking for girls?

What made it so hard?
The song has multiple rhyme schemes, it rises and falls, and the lyrics don’t really stay true to any one pattern. So it was difficult finding the words that would capture the mood, finding the textures that would fit the words, and making sure none of the rhyme schemes clashed. That took me a while, and I have a notepad with four or five different versions of the first half, making sure everything came out in the right order.

Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins

Did you have a breakthrough writing that song?
I did, actually. I was on tour in England, sitting in the back of a van, driving out of London on the M1, playing guitar and writing, and it all started coming together. I went back a couple of days later and massaged things a little bit, cut some words, evened up some phrases. That’s usually how it works with me. I get the opening written, and then I just keep going over it in my head, trying to take it a little further each time until it just works itself out. I try to let it be a natural process.


Did these songs change in the process of recording?
A couple of them did. “Baby’s Got a Bad Idea” was always one of the more rocking songs on the record, but it used to have more of a Magic Sam feel. During rehearsals, we had just run a slower version of it, and I was in the other room when Skylar, Bryn, and Bryan started messing around, playing it really fast. So I ran back in, saying, “Do that again,” counted off, and fell right in. That was a worthy change, it felt really good.

Why make a soul album?
As a native of Nashville, I see it as a natural progression. Country, blues, rock ’n’ roll, bluegrass, they all come from the same area of the country, and they all began in the church. I love those early recordings of the Staple Singers, just bass, drums, Pops, and the girls, and this record hints at those building blocks of soul. Black folk were singing simple songs about love and heartache and drinking too much, which was the same thing white folks were singing country songs about. Both of them had three to four chords max, and what’s played on the piano is practically identical. The only difference is if you grew up in a white church back then, you were in front of the beat. That’s where you get country music. And if you were in a black church, you got behind the beat. And you get the blues.

How do you describe your guitar playing?
I call it “sleight of hand,” some people call it “drop thumb.” When I was living in Johnson City, I met Malcolm Holcombe, who was living there. At the time, I was a Travis picker, didn’t use anything but my thumb and index finger—and I still do a lot of that, like “They Killed John Henry.” My index finger is pretty quick, so I can grab a lot of notes with it. But I watched Malcolm play, and I was just floored. He had this thing where he kept the rhythm with his thumb on the low strings and picked a part with his index finger on the high strings, while holding the rest of his fingers like a claw, like you would to play clawhammer. And then he’d strike the strings with that claw, really making a lot of noise. So I went home that day and tried to play like that, my cuticles bleeding, my hands just falling apart. By now, my right hand looks like hell, my cuticles are gone, and my thumb is a different shape than it used to be. But it was such a rhythmic style, I just had to play it, even if I’m nowhere near as good as Malcolm.

What are you working on now as a guitarist?
I want to play like Paul Simon, that high, jazzy fingerstyle playing that he does. I don’t know a lot about jazz chords, so I’m kind of messing around with them. Not that I want to make a jazz record, but I like that flavor that he has as a songwriter, that jazzy cool tone, especially in the early stuff. I have this one diminished chord that I use a lot, my players call it the JTE diminished chord. It’s definitely something I’m working on for the future, maybe for the next record.

What are you learning about yourself as a songwriter?
I’m becoming more aware of time. These days, I’m a more perceptive writer, a more patient writer. When I was young, I felt I had to write a certain amount of words a day, and I think it put too much pressure on me. By now, I’ve found that all I need to do is write enough songs for the next record. So I write ten to 12 songs a year, and I write them really slowly, just taking passes at them by trial and error. You know, you can make songwriting as easy or as hard as you want. And sometimes, I think it’s good to do something hard.


Justin Townes Earle passed away August 23, 2020 at the age of 38.

From the September 2012 issue of Acoustic Guitar

Kenny Berkowitz
Kenny Berkowitz

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