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Justin Townes Earle R.I.P.

Justin Townes Earle dead at 38

Was there something prophetic when Justin Townes Earle declared in a podcast interview with Rolling Stone last year: “I’ve been on this earth too long. It’s been a long, rough life. But I mean that just happens. But you don’t get to write songs the way that I write songs if you don’t, y’know, live.”

Now, just 14 months later, the lanky, likeable, free-spirited troubadour is dead at the age of 38.

News of his death came in a family posting on his Facebook page:

“It is with tremendous sadness that we inform you of the passing of our son, husband, father and friend Justin. So many of you have relied on his music and lyrics over the years and we hope that his music will continue to guide you on your journeys.

You will be missed dearly Justin 💔”

I've crossed oceans

Fought freezing rain and blowing sand

I've crossed lines and roads and wondering rivers

Just looking for a place to land

He left behind wife Jennifer Marie Earle and three-year-old daughter Etta St. James. No cause of death was confirmed.

Justin Townes Earle was born in Nashville on January 4, 1982, the son of Alt Country legend Steve Earle. His mother Carol-Ann Hunter was Steve’s third wife. The couple separated when Justin was young, but he remained living in Nashville where his music influence turned out to be the man from whom he took his second name, Townes Van Zandt. “My mother hated Townes Van Zandt because of the trouble that Dad and him got into,” Justin reflected to Rolling Stone.

Like his famous father, Justin battled addictions from his younger years. But he still carved out a distinguished career as a singer-songwriter – both as a recording artist, with eight albums, and a popular live performer. He was honoured by the Americana Music Association as Best New/Emerging Artist in 2009 and two years later won again at the AMA awards with Best Song for “Harlem River Blues.”

Lucinda Williams was one of the first big names in Americana music to provide a tribute:

“In a year that’s already taken too many from our small community, yet another light ascends and takes its place among the heavens. Our deepest condolences can only skim along the surface of this grief, and yet we send them - along with a promise to shine a bit brighter ourselves in his memory. Rest in Peace, Justin Townes Earle.”

Old friend and collaborator Jason Isbell added: “Had a lot of good times and made a lot of good music with JTE. So sad for his family tonight.”

And perhaps the pair’s best music came with one of Earle’s finest performances when he made his network-television debut on the David Letterman Late Show in 2011. Jason joined Late Show musical director Paul Shaffer (organ) and two backup vocalists to produce, with Earle, a simply stunning rendition of “Harlem River Blues.”

When you see me walking down the FDR

Just a-singin’ and a-clappin’ my hands

Tell my mama I love her

Tell my father I tried

Give my money to my baby to spend

It was “Harlem River Blues” – and its self-titled album – which propelled Earle into the big league and allowed him to be regarded as an singer-songwriter in his own right and not just the troubled son of Steve Earle. Besides the popular title-track, the album had a bunch of other songs – “Christchurch Girl,” “Rogers Park,” Working For The MTA” – which best demonstrated Justin’s acute folk-blues writing style.

But it was what would turn out to be his final album, The Saint Of Lost Causes, released last year, which many critics cited as his best work, with the title track, “Mornings in Memphis" and “Flint City Shake It” being stand-out numbers. NPR critic Anne Powers described the release as “a powerful road map of America.”

Speaking of roads, Justin loved touring and launched into a world-wide promotion of the album.

One of the most memorable gigs occurred in September last year towards the end of the Australian leg of the promotional tour. Justin was by himself in the far-north city of Cairns, which borders the Great Barrier Reef. The picturesque venue was truly distinctive – a large converted water tank in the city’s botanical gardens.

A small – maybe 150 - but knowledgeable bunch of true believers got to see Justin on a very good night. He quickly engaged his responsive audience with a wide range of expletives. “I’ve got balls like church bells,” was among his best. “Hey I’m an Earle,” he declared. “I’m highly offensive.”

The musical highlight turned out to be a set-list regular and, some would say, a personal classic, “Mama’s Eyes,” off his well-received 2009 release Midnight at the Movies. As was his norm, he introduced it with a family reference. “My mama’s a real bad bitch,” he stated matter-of-factly, adding she is six feet one! He paused for the embarrassed audience laughter, then let rip.

I’ve got my mama’s eyes

Her long thin frame and her smile

And I still see wrong from right

Cause I’ve got my mother’s eyes

In the Rolling Stone podcast, Justin opened up about “Mama’s Eyes”:

“It’s the idea of somebody who’s exactly like their father which was the last thing they wanted to be. You didn’t want to end up doing all the things that your daddy did. And you did. And your last saving grace is everything about you is like your father except for one night, very depressed, you light a cigarette and you see in the mirror that your eyes are shaped like your mother’s and that’s the only thing you’ve got that feels redeeming.”

Justin ended the Cairns concert as he would like to be remembered – flashy and flamboyant. He burst onto the stage for an encore wearing nothing above-waist except a motley collection of tattoos across his lanky frame. This was in the tropics after all.

Of all the obit’s provided so far, perhaps the best came from Holly Gleason in American Songwriter: “No cause of death was given, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe all that matters is that he lived…”

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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