Old Friends: Justin Townes Earle

Singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle died on August 23rd, 2020 at the age of 38.

***

Justin Townes Earle meant a lot to me.

Perhaps it was the familiarity I–and many of his fans, undoubtedly–had with his father, Steve’s work, and the ever-present connection to that complicated relationship that informed so much of Justin’s songwriting. Perhaps it was the strength of his personality that shined through so clearly on his albums. Perhaps his music was just that good.

Whatever it was, he began to feel less like an artist and more like a friend.

He was my constant companion during some lean, hard years. He bared his soul to me often and spoke with bracing honesty and a playful, devil-may-care sense of humor about daddy issues, addiction, compulsion, loneliness and–chicks, man. All shit I could relate to.

Half soul-rent poet and half arrogant prick, he was, as Johnny Cash once complimented Merle Haggard, everything I pretended to be. And everything about him was idiosyncratic: his gangly, scarecrow body, his mannered fashion sense, his outrageous fingerstyle playing, and most of all, his songs.

I have always liked country music, even when I was a little too embarrassed to admit it. My family is from the deep south and even when the music comes off a little hokey or a little honeyed, it speaks to something essential in my soul. The sound of southern accents pleases me, somehow. The rhythms of southern thought and speech make sense to me.

And yet Americana–a sweeping genre definition–has always felt a bit murky. It honors cultural specificity, but has an often-wearying vagueness about it.

What I mean is, a lot of times when I listen to Americana artists–even those whose provenance is the American south–I don’t hear southern artists communicating southernness. I hear NPR.

Earle was a southerner. His default was an acoustic blues style you didn’t hear many hipster twenty-somethings play, infused with the winking bravado of hip-hop, which of course had learned it from the blues. It was a trip into and back out of our country’s lower depths.

I discovered JTE about a decade ago, in the middle of a remarkable run of near-perfect albums, beginning with 2007’s Yuma–an acoustic LP with a DIY, Nebraska-like feel–and continuing through 2008’s The Good Life, 2009’s Midnight At The Movies and 2010’s Harlem River Blues.

He was a hip, edgy anomaly–an Americana artist who played old-timey music straight-up, with few modern embellishments or interpolations, trusting instead that his contemporary sensibility would inform the work. All the demons came roaring out in a style refreshing and alive, both old and new.

To my consternation, his later work suffered a pronounced drop-off in quality, starting with 2012’s Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now. I felt let down in a way that only a friend can make you feel. Maybe I took it all a little too seriously. Wouldn’t be the first time.

And now we know. Maybe there was a reason. The demons were just too strong, too hungry, I guess.

I saw JTE perform for the first time in several years last January. The show was, simply put, a bummer. It was clear that he was no longer a sober person. It was unsettling to watch. Yet I didn’t imagine it would lead us here, to his death at the inconceivable age of 38.

I hoped my friend would be okay.

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