STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
Justin Townes Earle just began a tour to promote his two recent releases – “Single Mothers” (Vagrant Records, 2014) and “Absent Fathers” (Vagrant Records, 2015). They were originally planned to be released together, and in a phone interview while riding to Columbia, S. C., Earle spoke to this writer about his life and his music. Excerpts from our interview are below.
Brodkin: How is the tour going so far?
Earle: Everything is going great. The crowds have been really good. The shows have been feeling really good. I have my pedal steel player/guitar player Paul Niehaus out with me and I love doing the duo shows.
Brodkin: You’re not touring with your band this time?
Earle: We did a pretty extensive tour including Australia with the band and we’re gonna get over to Europe with the band. I do a lot of different kinds of touring — this, solo tours, the band. Unfortunately these days it’s really hard to carry a band all the time.
Brodkin: Are the “Single Mothers” and “Absent Fathers” albums based on personal experience?
Earle: My songs in some way are all related to personal experience, because I feel it’s very important to understand what you’re writing about. But I don’t believe that any one person is that interesting when you get right down to it. And so my characters are composite characters made up of people that I’ve known my whole life and then my own experiences, of course. My fans think that my songs are very autobiographical, and I’d say they’re biographical but not autobiographical.
Brodkin: Why did you decide to release the two albums separately?
Earle: I sat down and tried to count how many double records that have been made in the past 30 to 40 years that I’ve actually ever sat down and listened to all the way through. They’re very long, and expecting that of people in this day of very little concentration is a lot to ask. So my records since the beginning have been around 30 to 40 minutes, no longer. And I thought it would be good to keep it that way for that reason. I do see them as companion pieces, but I think they’re better digested separately. And having time to think about the first record before you dive into the second record you realize that there’s change there. And find what you want out of it. That’s very important to me that I leave enough space for my crowd to put their puzzle pieces in there, too. I just want to make it fit.
Brodkin: How did you come up with the concept for the two albums?
Earle: Growing up in Nashville, there is an abundance of single mothers and absent fathers. I was one. I tried the other day to remember a family — a kid whose father and mother were still together and I thought it was none but I actually thought of one a couple of days ago. I think that’s a generational thing. I think the baby boomers were somewhat irresponsible with their children for the most part. It’s definitely something that’s been around, something that I know from many different angles. Something that I’ve come to learn is nobody’s fault. Some people are just not equipped for that and they’ve made a mistake. Nobody owes me (anything) but I still use the experience of that and I’m very blatant and bold with it. I think anything that we feel strongly about and have learned to process and not be emotional about but still be able to evoke emotion — I think there’s a big difference between emotion and (being) emotional. I think they run together and the idea just came from making a double record and then just deciding that I would rather stagger them out a little bit.
Brodkin: What kind of relationship do you have with your own mother and father?
Earle: I’ve always had a good relationship with my mother. That’s never changed. I’m in the position now where my mother needs taking care of so I’m definitely taking a lot of care of her, which I feel like no matter what my position in life that’s always more important. So I’ve made a lot of changes in life in order to facilitate that and it’s not an issue to me. It gets aggravating sometimes.
(The relationship between my father and me) is definitely a lot calmer than it was. But we’ve been buddies, basically, since I was in my teens. Surely we got mad at each other and yelled but that wasn’t the extent of our relationship. It took me a long time to get over what happened when I was growing up, but I became a drug addict myself and realize what it does to people and how it makes you behave. I think people are just born with that particular disease.
Brodkin: How has your father impacted your musical career?
Earle: He was always very supportive. When I started doing it seriously when I was 15 I think he was just happy that I was doing something that wasn’t gonna put me in jail. And so was my mother. He was very supportive of me. He was very, very hard on me about it. I mean very hard on me. And that’s definitely something that I never got upset about, because I understood that it takes hard lessons to do what I wanted to do for a living. He told me the single most important thing when it comes to songwriting, which is do not ever write about something that you do not fully understand. And that’s a very important thing, because … when you hear some 17-year-old kid that grew up maybe in Mississippi but they grew up in Oxford with a professor for a parent or they’re from Brooklyn and they’re singing about horses and plows and whiskey in a jug … Nobody in New York since the 19th century has drunk whiskey from a jug.
Brodkin: Do you have plans for any future musical projects?
Earle: I’ve had a lot of ideas about things that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Some of them have faded; some of them have gotten stronger. And new ones have come in. Something I’d do for fun, probably, is gather a really, really traditional jazz quartet and just sing. I think that would be fun. But I’m already cooking up another record with the band that I currently have and hope to hold onto for a long time. So there’ll be something coming up soon. I don’t like the fact that it took two to three years to get a record out this time.
IF YOU GO
What: XPN Welcomes Justin Townes Earle with Gill Landry
When: Show is at 8 p.m., Monday, March 2; doors open at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Sellersville Theater 1894, 24 W. Temple Ave., Sellersville.
Tickets: $25 and $39.50 at www.st94.com
Artist’s website: www.justintownesearle.com