Justin Townes Earle: “I do feel a responsibility to these old existing forms”

(Image credit: Joshua Black Wilkins)

We snared Justin Townes Earle mid-tour to discuss his finest record thus far, country music, traditional songs and the benefits of an affordable guitar...

On the terrace of an inner city hotel sits Justin Townes Earle, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, having escaped the throng of Glastonbury festival the day before. “Man, it took us an hour to find out where we were even supposed to be,” he grins, lighting up.

“It was a good set, though, with a decent range of songs. I've made eight records now in ten years, so I don't have fans that have forgotten about songs yet, but I do have to mix it up a lot now. It's becoming a problem to make set lists, because you have to leave out whole records. And for the festival set, you're trying to be in people's faces, so we didn't do any slow songs, we just came out and did ten pretty up beat ones straight through, which I wouldn't do normally.”

Although festival sets are very hits heavy, the show that evening, in Bristol's Tunnels, focused more on Justin's fine new Kids In The Street album, considered his best by many and being gratefully received as music comparable to the 'good old days'.

“It's something that I definitely love to produce, this old familiar feel,” he considers.

“I think you have to have that in what I do, because I'm not reinventing the wheel; like Dylan said, I'm working within pre-existing forms. And I love doing that and being able to remind people of something that came from the past. It's always been important, but I think it's becoming more so because we're advancing at such an insane speed.”

Phishing for the truth

Earle has always showed a level of respect for his musical ancestors, alluding to them throughout his catalogue, but you sense he feels concern within his genres that people now have less patience to delve deep into the roots of the tradition. 

I do feel a responsibility to these old existing forms and these old stories that I work within

“You can't make country music based on the fact that Gram Parsons wrote the book,” he says, simply.

“We start losing right there with Gram, because there's a ton of musicians my age whose education begins with Gram Parsons. It doesn't begin with what made Gram and by knowing that he understood all of that old country stuff very well, which is the reason why Gram was Gram. I don't think it was because he was this innovative shooting star, you know? He was educated. It's like Phish when I was growing up; the only other kids who knew who Mississippi John Hurt was were Phish fans, because Trey Anastasio was into all of that stuff. But it certainly didn't give me a clear vision of it.”

A song on the new record that springs to mind in relation to this topic is Same Old Stagalee, which takes the well trodden traditional classic and throws it into the now.

“There's that one and Short Hair Woman, and I did them for the same reason that I did They Killed John Henry in the past, and that's because I do feel a responsibility to these old existing forms and these old stories that I work within. The way to ensure that the next generation understands the music properly is to keep advancing these storylines that have been advanced for a hundred years or more. Songs like Pretty Polly are even older and have come from Ireland and Scotland to over here, where they've become The Gypsy Davey and things like that. That's the reason they've stayed, through their incarnations.

(Image credit: Joshua Black Wilkins)

 “In the traditional Stagalee, a Stetson gets knocked off somebody's head and, typically, Stagalee kills Jimmy, but in some versions Jimmy's woman kills Stagalee, so it's all over the place. Advancing it to the point [on Same Old] where it's a neighbourhood dispute between crack dealers is still a very real story: you stepped over the line, I'm gonna kill you. Life is still that ridiculous.”

If the above sounds rather mortal and brutal, Kids In The Street does contain a refreshingly positive energy and optimism that, although not absent, has been less obvious in recent years from this musician.

“I agree with you there,” he nods. “It's something that I realised and that developed more as the record was being made. I think at this point in my life I've had a bit more balance between bitter and sweet. Five years ago, this record could not have been written in this fashion, because there would have been a lot more venom on the subject of gentrification and more outlandish ideas in the Stagalee song - there would have been a lot more anger behind it. I think there's a place for that, but on here I've ended up looking more outwardly at life and feeling more a part of the human race. We are after all much more alike than we are different.”

Maybe A Moment

The track that supports these comments best is Maybe A Moment, a stand out song with a wonderfully optimistic feel that you want to stick on repeat.

I think that maybe what I was going for was a slightly less fatal version of Born to Run

“I think that maybe what I was going for was a slightly less fatal version of Born to Run,” he suggests, with a wry smile.

“If Springsteen had written that song in his mid-thirties instead of mid-twenties, it would be a completely different song. Once again, it's just that I see myself as advancing the rights of somebody who came before me. Springsteen needs to be carried on throughout the ages as much as Mississippi John Hurt does.”

Moving on to chat guitars, Justin is an interesting contrast to his father, Steve, who recently spoke to us extensively about instruments and got us green with envy. Justin takes a different approach in what he chooses to play, favouring The Loar and Recording King models.

“There was a working class hero idea in the fact that I didn't want to buy a five thousand dollar guitar,” he explains. 

“I was at a festival playing a Gibson of some sort and a kid came up with his dad and said he wanted a guitar just like mine. The dad said they couldn't afford it, and it just struck me. You can't convince me that every Gibson guitar is worth the money, it's a case by case basis, especially today. And there is something in the function of a press-board guitar that I love. They sound great and they're between six and seven hundred dollars! 

(Image credit: Joshua Black Wilkins)

“Some are less; I have a Loar that I played on a seven-week tour in the States recently that was three hundred dollars and it was great. It played good and stayed in tune, and I didn't just use it plugged in, I used it on mics and it worked fine. I have a Loar tonight too, one of their medium concert sized acoustics, and it's a really good guitar for less than $600.”

To really state his case, Justin is in the process of having a signature guitar produced for him by Recording King.

“We did some tests, but haven't quite got what I'd like yet, so there are a couple of prototypes sitting in my basement. What I'm after is something around the size of an Epiphone Texan or J-50, but slightly smaller and thinner, because those Texans are thick guitars. I also want a pretty tight neck on it; even as a fingerstyle player, I don't like the neck too wide so I have to span my fingers out, I'd rather keep it as tight as I can. So, it'll have a full-scale 14-fret neck, but the neck will be like the Texan, which is kinda small. Those '63 ones, the Paul McCartney guitars, have tiny necks. People don't realise that The Beatles had little hands! That little Rickenbacker John Lennon played had a tiny neck!”

People don't realise that The Beatles had little hands! That little Rickenbacker John Lennon played had a tiny neck!

Although perhaps not as fashionable these days, Justin's preference to a neater neck and spacing suits his playing style, where there aren't many fingers jostling at one time, as he demonstrates by planting his three fingers on an imaginary soundboard and twangs his index finger and thumb.

“I do a good bit of Travis picking too, but it involves many fingers, so usually I just use the two. On a song like They Killed John Henry, if I threw a third finger in there, it'd just mess me all up. But I also do this kind of pop swat, where I hit the bass strings with my thumb and play the stroke down and then pull the notes I want up with my index. It's a pretty bastardised mix of different fingerstyle techniques. If I did have to put my fingerpicking style to one person, it would be Mississippi John Hurt, with his relaxed two-finger roll. It's the same style as Travis picking, always holding that rolling rhythm.”

Kids in the Street is out now on New West Records.

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