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Justin Townes Earle

In some respects, Justin Townes Earle seemed destined from birth to be a musician -- his father, Steve Earle, is one of America's most acclaimed singer/songwriters, and he was named in part for Townes Van Zandt, a close friend of Earle's and an equally legendary tunesmith. But Justin also grew up learning the downside of the musician's life, and came up against some of the same demons that haunted his father. While Justin shared his father's love of American roots music, the influences played out in a different way; there was a languid, moody quality to his music that was his alone, and he preferred spare, minimal backings with a bluesy undertow to the rock-infused country sound that dominates his dad's most famous work. Earle's early albums, such as 2008's The Good Life, were modest, low-key efforts that suggested he was still finding his way in the recording studio, but 2010's Harlem River Blues was the first of several ambitious and full-bodied works that added an R&B groove to Earle's melodies, as well as a more introspective lyrical outlook. With 2019's The Saint of Lost Causes, he began dipping his toes into topical material for the first time. Born in 1982, Justin Townes Earle didn't see much of his dad through most of his childhood; after the release of his first album in 1986, Steve was often on the road, and a serious drug habit sidelined him through much of the early '90s. Despite it all, Justin developed an appetite for music, and in his teens he began playing and singing with two different Nashville groups: a rock band called the Distributors and a bluegrass-influenced acoustic combo, the Swindlers. Justin also spent some time as a member of his father's touring band the Dukes, and sang one of his own songs, "The Time You Waste," on Steve's 2003 live album Just an American Boy. But Justin was fired from the Dukes after a dangerous appetite for drugs began interfering with his performances, and he told a Los Angeles Times reporter that he suffered his fifth major drug overdose, one that put him in the hospital for several days, when he was only 21. That misadventure put Justin on the road to recovery, though, and once clean and sober he began putting a new focus on his music and songwriting. In 2007, he unveiled a critically acclaimed EP, Yuma, on his own J-Trane Music label, and later that year he signed with the respected "insurgent country" label Bloodshot, which released his debut album, The Good Life, on March 25, 2008. He followed it with Midnight at the Movies in 2009 and Harlem River Blues in 2010. While touring in support of Harlem River Blues, Earle was involved in an altercation with a club owner after a show in Indianapolis, which led to a brief stay in jail and a return to rehab for alcohol issues. From that point onward, he was reportedly clean and sober, and continued to record and tour steadily. In 2012, Earle released the album Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, and he dipped his toes into production, working behind the board on Unfinished Business, an album by pioneering rockabilly singer Wanda Jackson. After Earle's contract with Bloodshot had run its course, he signed a deal with Communion Records, a U.K. label owned in part by Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons; however, the deal soon turned into a war of words between him and the label's A&R staff, with Earle frequently posting angry messages on Twitter about his dealings with the company. In 2014, Earle finally re-emerged with a new album, Single Mothers, which was released by the American independent label Vagrant Records. Single Mothers was recorded in tandem with a companion album, Absent Fathers, but rather than release them together, Earle decided the two sets of songs would be more powerful as separate works, and Absent Fathers arrived in January 2015. Two years later, Earle released the album Kids in the Street, his first for the respected independent label New West Records. He supported the release with a concert tour in tandem with the celebrated Canadian group the Sadies, who served as his opening act as well as his backing band. 2019's The Saint of Lost Causes was an especially atmospheric work dominated by stories of desperate characters and a nation where injustice was sadly common. On August 23, 2020, his family announced that Justin Townes Earle had died at the age of 38.
© Mark Deming /TiVo


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