Living up to the name of the last century’s greatest songwriters was always going to take some doing, but Justin Townes Earle – his middle name is a tribute to the legendary Townes Van Zandt – managed it and then some. “I think a lot of men are afraid of pretty things, and I’m not. I like pretty songs, and I think that’s what I take from Townes,” explained Earle. “I’m completely fearless in making pretty music.”
The son of country rock singer Steve Earle has sadly died at the all-too-young age of 38. Here we look back at an impressive – and damn pretty – body of work that bridged bluegrass, Americana, gospel and miles of blues, all tied together by an impeccable approach to lyricism, which saw Earle telling some of the most powerful stories in modern American music.
‘Harlem River Blues’ (2010)
The glorious title track of Earle’s third album might have rung out with a clear, almost celebratory gospel bounce, but its lyrics quickly betrayed an unsettling sense of sorrow, as the protagonist decides to jump in a river to drown himself. “I’m no fool, mama, I know the difference / Between tempting and choosing my fate,” he sang, preacher-like, over a backing choir that featured fellow country artists Jason Isbell, Caitlin Rose, Rayland Baxter and Joshua Hedley.
‘Lone Pine Hill’ (2008)
Three gut-wrenching minutes of thoughtful and eviscerating gothic blues, ‘Lone Pine Hill’ tells of a confederate soldier during the American Civil War who is consumed by guilt over unwillingly fighting to uphold slavery: “’Cause I ain’t never known a man that’s ever owned another / Ain’t never owned nothing of my own / So after four long years I just can’t tell you / What the hell I’ve been fighting for.” Brutal.
‘Rogers Park’ (2010)
A prime example of Earle’s way with prettiness, the piano-led ‘Rogers Park’ is unflinching in its dedication to beauty. Lyrically it’s up there with Tom Waits at his most romantic (“The moon is hung just right / Shine like diamonds on these streets”) while the sumptuous slide-guitar melody floats along with perfect grace. It’s a tribute to the Chicago neighbourhood Earle moved to at 18, and he later explained his reasons for leaving: “I was getting in too much trouble and all the things that were bad for me were way too accessible, cheap, and strong in Chicago. I didn’t have the control to be around that temptation.”
A devastating look at a young man on the brink, the stand-out track from Earle’s debut EP not only announced the arrival of a bright new talent, but also of a soul battered by addiction and self-doubt. With just his voice and a rolling, softly picked acoustic guitar Earle painted a bleak but tender picture of the last moments of a life lived in pain.
‘Mama’s Eyes’ (2009)
Earle picks apart his fraught relationship with his alt.country outlaw father on this heartbreaking ballad, exploring their shared battles with substance abuse. “I was a young man when / I first found the pleasure in the feel of a sin / I went down the same road as my old man / I was younger then,” Earle offers on the swooning ragtime ballad. Taken from his second album, ‘Midnight At The Movies’, it was the song that saw Earle make the jump from the honky-tonks of Nashville to the global stage.
‘Memphis In The Rain’ (2012)
An all-out belter that owes a significant debt to the southern soul stylings of Otis Redding, ‘Memphis In The Rain’ saw Earle bring in a horn section to create a shimmering moment of pop perfection. Two-and-half minutes of old-school style showmanship, it bristles with the kind of big top razzle-dazzle that came as easily to Earle as intimate balladry.
‘Ahi Esta Mi Nina’ (2019)
Last year’s ‘Saint Of Lost Causes’ would be Earle’s last album, and at its heart is this depiction of a compassionate discussion between a father and his daughter. In his trademark lonesome croon, Earle offered up regret and apologies: “You’re the only good I’ve ever done with my life.” His wife gave birth to their only child before the release of this album, and he seems even more invested than usual in this tale of twisted family ties.
‘One More Night In Brooklyn’ (2010)
If you’ve ever lived in a godawful flat then you’ll find something familiar in this ode to living the bad life. Looking back at Earle’s crappy, cramped New York apartment where the shower ran non-stop for 24 hours a day, the bouncy bluegrass of ‘One More Night In Brooklyn’ finds him weaving equal parts of humour and romance, creating a sweet and compelling Americana shuffle.
‘Kids In The Street’ (2017)
Earle slid on Bruce Springsteen’s rose-tinted spectacles for this dreamy, fuss-free look at the Nashville of his youth. The title track of his seventh album, ‘Kids In The Street’ sweeps together gentrification and growing old over gentle pedal steel guitar while Earle sighs in remembrance of the days “back when life was simple”.
‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ (2009)
Earle’s way with a cover was singular. His 2017 take on Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ is undeniably gorgeous, but it’s his version of The Replacements‘ 1985 classic ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ that really rips up the rule book. Taking new wave alt.rock and giving it an effortlessly perky bluegrass makeover – complete with swooning fiddle – it’s a lesson in how to make a good song even better.