By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Justin Townes Earle is one tough sonuvabitch.
He's lived homeless on the streets of Nashville, been addicted to crack and heroin, and hung out with "killers and prostitutes." And all before he turned 20.
How could he not be tough?
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"It's one of those unavoidable things, especially when you're dealing with legacies as powerful as Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt," Justin says. "And then there are certain behavioral expectations, which I unfortunately tend to keep meeting on a regular basis."
Those expectations were met once again last September when Earle was arrested following a performance in Indianapolis at which he was belligerent toward the audience and reportedly tried to assault members of the club's staff and trash his dressing room.
Of course, because of pending litigation, Earle can't comment on the case, saying only that the reported facts are inaccurate, and, in a surprising display of honesty, that his lingering desire for alcohol and drugs is partially to blame.
"I'm not gonna say I wasn't looking for drugs or that I wasn't drunk—fuck yeah, I was." Earle insists. "I was completely out of my mind drunk, and when I'm drinking I'm always looking for drugs. It turns that switch. But some other things didn't happen."
Old habits and family traditions die hard. It's equally difficult to escape the remnants of one's dark childhood as it is to escape the shadows of a legacy into which one is born.
But then, Earle has always been drawn to life's darker side. Ever since he discovered blues legend Leadbelly through Nirvana's Unplugged In New York album ("I loved Nirvana, and I was a huge Mudhoney fan"), he's been drawn to the mixture of brutal imagery and beautiful musicianship in older music and says his project is to investigate the connections that run through it.
His most recent album, Harlem River Blues, is his best look into those connections. From the rockabilly of the title track and "Move Over Mama," the folky "Wanderin'," the soulful "Christchurch Woman" to the poppy "One More Night in Brooklyn" and beautiful anthemic and mournful "Rogers Park," the album touches many forms of American music, but never feels unwieldly.
It also never betrays Earle's favorite themes. The songs on Harlem River Blues feature characters mired in loneliness, despair and resignation and at times they even court the sweet release of death through suicide. Not quite as extreme as Leadbelly's homicidal lover burying his victim under pine needles, but not too far removed either.
Ultimately, it's that strong material, not the lingering "behavioral issues," that will determine Earle's future.
While he could be dismissed as just another entry in a long line of classic country progeny who experienced moderate success, like Shooter Jennings or Hank Williams III, only the latter's daddy, Hank Williams Jr., has enjoyed a transcendent level of success and longevity. And he had his own family traditions to work out.
Earle might be the best of them all and best positioned to reach that level of success, as long as he keeps his demons in check.
"I'm not going to worry about it," Earle says with a hint of resignation. "I'm also not going to make any promises."