“I’m doing good, health-wise,” Earle says from his Nashville home. “I’ve got a lot of things straightened out and I’m working on others. I never shy away from telling people this is an incredibly hard business to be good in.”
That’s a vast improvement for Earle, whose substance issues were so bad at one point that his father, Steve Earle, removed his son from his position as guitarist in his backing band. When you go too far for a guy whose own appetite for illicit substances earned him a prison stint in the mid-’90s, you’ve seriously crossed a line. At the same time, Justin’s father offered some invaluable advice, coming from a place of wisdom, perspective and love.
“He just told me to always stay honest with myself,” Justin says, “to know who I am and where I stand and to let that reflect in my art, and I’d always be OK if I did that.”
With nine months of sobriety under his belt, Earle is resuming his tour for Harlem River Blues, one of the best albums in his impressive catalog. Given the almost universally positive reception lavished upon its predecessor, 2009’s Midnight at the Movies, exemplified by Earle’s Americana Music Award for Emerging Artist that year, it’s conceivable he might have tried to over-think his follow up. Luckily, Earle has never approached his next project by analyzing his last one.
“Midnight at the Movies was just one more thing I wanted to do, which was researching what you can mix with old patterns and forms of music,” Earle says.
Earle had very definite ideas about his fourth album; in a rare case of creative specificity, he wrote the songs in the exact order that they appear on the album. He even shuffled the set list a couple of times to make sure he had it right from the start.
“I write records to be records, so Harlem River Blues was Harlem River Blues before I was finished,” Earle says. “I actually wrote Harlem River Blues in sequence. It was something I wanted to do. I went through and kind of Rubik’s Cubed it a little bit, but it worked out that the original running order was the one. It’s pretty much exactly like I wanted it. I’m very specific when I go in the studio. I take the Bruce Springsteen stance — I’m the boss, and if I’m not happy, nobody’s happy.”
At least part of what Earle wanted to accomplish with Harlem River Blues was to examine the intersection between traditional sacred music and contemporary secular music. Like his father before him, Earle is a voraciously curious musicologist.
“I wanted to search for the connections between Gospel music and modern music, so before I started making my record, I chose two sources to take from — the Carter Family and the Staple Singers,” he says. “What you’re dealing with there is music that began in the church and then moved into the secular audience. I’m one of those firm believers that American music, in all its forms, was created in church. I guarantee you the first place Hank Williams sang was in church. I think that’s very important, to understand that it all started with praise to God.”
If there is a consistency across Earle’s four diverse albums — 2007’s Folk-fueled Yuma, 2008’s honky-tonking The Good Life, 2009’s rootsy Midnight at the Movies and last year’s Blues — it’s their creator’s propensity for simultaneously writing and arranging. Earle hears the intricacies of his songs as easily as he hears the melody.
“When I write, I do it so slow that I tend to produce the track in my head,” Earle say, laughing. “It’s one thing where severe ADD comes in handy. I have like a Rolodex spinning in my head constantly. I hear bass parts and drum parts and horn parts going in my head, and that’s what I walk in the studio with. I present it to my players and they tweak it and tell me what’s going to rub where and we go from there. It is kind of frightening but I don’t have big crazy ideas like a lot of artists. I try to keep my goals obtainable.”
Earle is already well into the process of making his fifth album, which he hopes to begin recording this fall. As he reflects on his career to date, it’s hard to ignore the echo of his father’s fiercely independent creative attitude in his musings.
“Just because I’ve achieved some success, it doesn’t mean that I’ve arrived anywhere,” he says. “We’re still traveling, still searching, still trying that next thing, the next step. That’s one thing I’ve taken from my father. As soon as you stop learning, you stop being creative.”
JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE performs Sunday at the Southgate House with guest Joshua Black Wilkins. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.