Justin Townes Earle is very good company. If you saw him perform at Workplay last week, you understand that he’s a consummate entertainer, an audience charmer in full command of his song craft. If you know him only from fine albums such as the award-winning Harlem River Blues or his latest, Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, you hear an artist comfortable singing in practically any genre. However, if you’ve never had the chance to sit down and talk with him, you may not be aware of the keen, wide-ranging intellect Steve Earle’s kid carries around under his hat.
We had that chance for a few minutes after catching Justin’s live set for Birmingham Mountain Radio and it went a little something like this:
Weld: I’ve turned 30 a couple of times now and I wondered how the milestone affected you when you hit it recently.
Justin Townes Earle: It was something else. I think the biggest thing that happened was that a sense of relief came over me, that my 20s were finally done. I lived through them. My 20s were every bit as tumultuous as my teens, and I turned 30 with a deep breath of relief that I’d never have to do that again. I don’t have that many real regrets in life, and I’m not one of those people, “Oh, I wish I could go back and do this differently.” No. I mean, I wouldn’t change a thing, but I wouldn’t do it again.
Weld: As a dweller in the greatest city on earth, what was it like to have a hurricane come to call the other week?
JTE: Really recently, I’ve been in the transition back to Nashville because my mother is in a position now where she’s having trouble paying the bills, and she’ll lie to me. She’ll tell me she’s fine, y’know. I’m moving back to be a little closer to her so I can help out and all those things. But New York and a lot of my friends—the East Village, most of the land east of First Avenue and below 14th Street is landfill, so [Hurricane Sandy] really damaged the neighborhood really badly.
On 14th Street between A and B, water was over the roofs of cars…I lost a couple of guitars, but I don’t even worry about that. But the East Village, especially, is a neighborhood where I have a lot of friends who are old artists, painters, writers, everything….They were cool kids who moved into the alphabets in the 60s and early 70s when it was nasty down there. A lot of them had gotten big apartments thanks to Giuliani’s cleanup and some of them are on the ground floor.
Nobody I know got hurt. That’s the best thing I can say.
Weld: You gave yourself a great job description once, calling yourself a “Southern music preservationist.” What is there about Southern music that needs to be preserved?
JTE: Well, I think, if you really want to get down to it, it’s all Southern music.
Weld: Wasn’t it Ernie K. Doe who said that?
JTE: And Levon [Helm] said it, too. He had the best one. [In The Band’s concert movie, The Last Waltz] he says, “You’ve got bluegrass coming down from Kentucky, you’ve got mountain music from the Carolinas coming in, country music in Nashville, you’ve got the blues coming up out of the Delta, jazz coming up out of New Orleans and it all slides up to Memphis.” Then [director Martin] Scorsese says, “And what do you call that?”
Levon goes, “Well, rock and roll, what do you mean?”
Weld: How did you find opportunities to preserve Southern music when you were in New York?
JTE: I think I found the same thing that Woody [Guthrie] did in New York City. I think Southern people, if you get to New York and you’re confident in yourself, can get yourself into the mix. I find it a very easy place to be a Southern man. New Yorkers like Southern people, whether they know it or not…Southern boys have a long history of going to New York and doing very well for themselves. If you do happen to be smart enough, it’s the city where you will stand out, and if you’re doing something worth noticing, it will get noticed, very fast.
Weld: Speaking of Woody Guthrie, you did an intriguing thing recently, putting on a Woody Guthrie tribute at the Schimmel Center…and the proviso was that contributing artists couldn’t perform any Woody Guthrie songs. How’d that work?
JTE: Especially in his early days, Woody walked into rooms, and he was everybody’s favorite clown, he was everybody’s favorite shmuck, he could be whatever you wanted him to be, or whatever he wanted to be, at any time. Like, I’m one of those people that, when I listen to the Replacements, “Kiss Me on the Bus,” I hear Carl Perkins in that. I find that in really good songwriters, and I had Joe Pug and John McCauley from Deer Tick on the first night, and Joe Pug represented the youthful angst and political satire of Woody Guthrie, and John McCauley represented the way-smarter-than-I-look part of Woody. Woody did the same thing I think John McCauley does. John McCauley manages to make everybody think that he’s a slacker, when he’s actually hard working; I mean, really hard working, and one of the most talented musicians that I know. Those two represented two of my favorite parts of Woody Guthrie.
I also had [political writer and Guthrie biographer] Joe Klein. I just threw that out as an idea. I think Joe Klein can describe a man and a situation better than any other human being. He’s one of my favorite writers. I love reading his pieces in Time magazine, and his books, and he was every bit as cool as I had hoped he would be. He showed up early, he hung out with everybody, had a good time in the dressing room. And what he did was, he went out onstage—and I saw the hipsters in the crowd, I’d be like, “We have Joe Klein, a writer,” and they’d go agghh, waiting for a reading. But Joe knew what he was walking out into, and he clocked ‘em right off, he got ‘em.
He came to me the second night, right after he’d gotten off stage. I’d introduced Joe Pug and come back to the wings, and he came up to me and grabbed both of my hands and said, “Look, I’m very sorry but I have to go. I have to go get cleared because I’m meeting Air Force One. I’m going on a tour of battleground states with Obama and Clinton.” He’s like, I hope you can understand. I’m like, oh yes, I can.
I told everybody working before he showed up, remember this. This is one of the top political writers in the United States. We’re in the middle of a political race and he is taking time out of his schedule to come here and be with us tonight. Anything he wants, get it.
Weld: You’ve already developed a catalog of extraordinarily diverse approaches to recording your music. This last time around, you dipped into Memphis soul. What is there in your background that made you think, I can do anything so I’d like to try everything?
JTE: Woody Guthrie, plain and simple. He just did what he wanted: children’s songs, anything, he could just write it all. When I made The Good Life [his first full-length CD for Bloodshot Records, in 2008], I genuinely wanted to be a country singer. But I found I didn’t like what 90% of American people think of as country. I think that when you’re looking at the roots of music, like Americana-country-rock kinda stuff, and Gram [Parsons] did the country-soul thing—sometimes a little too out there for me—I found the Memphis thing came very naturally to me. In the [Nashville] neighborhood that I grew up in, the few white kids that were there were raised by single mothers, and they were the kids of songwriters. So when I went to my friends’ houses for dinner, their parents would be sitting at the kitchen table drinking Alize with Sam and Dave blaring in the living room.
I remember the first time I heard Al Green, “I’m So Tired of Being Alone.” This light blue 70s Cadillac with the top down, pulled in, gold wheels on it, and it was just banging Al Green out of the back end. It just stuck with me. And that soul groove—the only difference between soul and country has to do with race and religion. That’s the meeting point. You have black and white churches. Everybody in the white church is up, up for Jesus, in front, getting this [he claps a straight 4/4 tempo]. In the black churches [he claps once, sighs, claps again], they’re getting behind the beat. And the whole thing comes together. I hear the twang in Otis Redding like I do in George [Jones].
Weld: You did an album for another Oklahoma native recently, and that’s Wanda Jackson [Unfinished Business, Sugar Hill Records]. Did you find being a producer for the first time, being responsible for somebody else’s end product, to be a good experience?
JTE: Yeah, I enjoyed it a lot. I think with Wanda it was a very special situation. I went through her past records, I’m talking the past 10 or 15 years of records, and on most of the songs it sounded like there was something uncomfortable. Something a little bit off. It sounds great, but what’s wrong? And I just realized, once I got her in the studio, that Wanda was an artist who’d been controlled her entire life. She’s always had a Colonel Tom Parker kind of figure around her.
Weld: Was it her husband, Wendell?
JTE: Yeah, in a way. He just makes sure everything goes smoothly, makes sure nobody gets over on her. He doesn’t really do the deals so much anymore, but he did from 1961 until fairly recently. But I listened to Wanda’s Decca years, the Decca years in the late 50s. That’s the most comfortable I ever heard her sound, and it was kinda in between rockabilly and country, a little more country. I just knew I needed to make Wanda Jackson feel comfortable.
Weld: How did she come to your attention in the first place?
JTE: My managers called up one day. Her management had gotten a hold of mine and just asked if I was interested in it, and I said, sure, of course I’m interested. Then I didn’t hear anything until about a month before we were supposed to get in the studio and we had to get a song list together. That was quite a battle. I wrote her two songs. She didn’t like either one of them.
Weld: But I loved her take on “California Stars” [a Woody Guthrie lyric given melody by Billy Bragg and Wilco on the album Mermaid Avenue].
JTE: That’s one of the favorite things I’ve ever done in the studio. That was not originally planned. I had had another song for her to record. There were some things that popped up that…gave me a little clarity about what happened with some of the past records. Tempo-wise, you do have to remember that she was 73 when I was working with her. She can only sing so fast.
Weld: So you modify the tempos and keys to accommodate the artist.
JTE: Exactly. I’ve just heard a lot of things recorded on her in the past several years that you can tell that somebody sped ‘em up, things like that. I just don’t do that.
Weld: Why would you need to?
JTE: Wanda had lost a little confidence in her voice, and who can blame her? Every time I talked to Wanda, I got her a black leather chair like yours, and I always sat on my knees next to her, because it put me right at eye level with her. So every conversation I had with her was on my knees, talking very softly to her. I think she just loved the idea that someone was looking her in the eyes and asking her what she wanted, instead of telling her what to do. You’ve got to let somebody like Wanda Jackson be Wanda Jackson. The producer’s job is to put them in the best circumstances possible. That’s all you do.
Weld: Are there other artists you’d like to work with at that level?
JTE: There’re tons of artists. I want to make a record on Joe Pug really bad. There’s a singer-songwriter out of Nashville named Tristen [Gaspadarek]. I’d love to make a record on her, she’s really great. There’s a lot of people out there I would love to get a chance to make a record on.
I always want to do live shows, but I don’t want to be on the road 200 days a year for the rest of my life.
Weld: In Neil Young’s new memoir, he talks about his newfound sobriety; first time he’s been clean and sober in many years. He worries about how it’s going to affect his song writing. You’ve had your own fairly public struggles. How has altered consciousness affected your creative process? What do you see changing now?
JTE: I don’t think that Neil has anything to worry about. I do believe this is one of those things, either you can or you can’t. It’s just like being a baseball player. There are people who can just pitch, but it still takes a helluva lot of refinement and a helluva lot of work, and you still just may not necessarily make it. I never let such thoughts get in my mind. I’ve written staggering drunk and tripping out of my mind. I’ve written on all these things, but I guarantee you I can write more consistently clean than any other way, because I do believe that writing is a very emotional thing. The more you feel, the more it hurts, the better you’re going to be able to describe it.