Justin Townes Earle isn’t exactly a household name.yet. Son of country hard-knock Steve Earle and named after country/folk troubadour Townes Van Zandt, Earle is just barely two years into his professional music career. After spending years battling drug and alcohol addiction, Earle decided it was time to get serious. Justin started out just down the road in Nashville, playing small coffee shops and college campuses. He didn’t gain much attention at first, but his work paid off when he was picked up by Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, who released his first album “Hard Livin’ in 2008. “Hard Livin'” received decent reviews and JTE began touring more extensively. He developed a strong following in Nashville and began performing at larger venues. “Hard Livin” exhibited Earle’s leanings toward ’40s and ’50s country with songs like “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome?” and “Ain’t Glad I’m Leavin’.”
JTE capitalized on the steam he’d built up with “Hard Livin'” and quickly wrote and recorded “Midnight at the Movies” in 2009. The tracks on the album were well polished and showed that Justin had gained confidence in his songwriting. Songs like “Mama’s Eyes” and “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven for This” give an air of maturity, as opposed to Earle’s previous carefree, simple songwriting style. “Midnight at the Movies” received rave reviews and catapulted Earle into the national spotlight.
Continuing to gain confidence and listeners, JTE headed back into the studio almost immediately after releasing “Midnight at the Movies.” The result was “Harlem River Blues,” which was released last Tuesday via Bloodshot Records. The album release party was held at Grimey’s New and Preloved Music in Nashville, where Earle played several tracks from the new album and a couple of old favorites. I was lucky enough to be there to see this happen.
“This record is a gospel record of sorts,” Earle said as he donned his pre-war era Gibson acoustic guitar. “The songs aren’t gospel songs lyrically, but gospel music is what I was inspired by this time around.”
The first song that was played off the new album was the title track, “Harlem River Blues,” a song about welcoming a baptism in the putrid water of the Harlem River. This song was obviously prompted by JTE’s recent move to New York. “One More Night in Brooklyn” is another song about the big apple, except this one is about Earle’s disdain for his first home in that particular neighborhood. In the song, he tells his girlfriend that they’re moving to Manhattan, despite the hefty spike in rent that they would incur.
“I don’t care what the hipsters think,” Earle said at the Grimey’s in-store performance. “Brooklyn sucks.”
Tracks like “Rogers Park” and “Christ Church Woman” are somber and set a different tone than the more gospel-inspired tracks. “Rogers Park” provides an account of Justin’s previous home in Chicago, which resulted in him being forced to leave to get away from drugs. “Christ Church Woman” tells the story of a woman Earle claims he met in Australia but who may or may not even exist. She seems more like a fantasy than a reality, if you ask me. Then again, most songs would be pretty boring if they weren’t embellished upon at least a little bit.
The tracks on “Harlem River Blues” help the listener even better understand Earle’s point of view and past experiences. That’s really what the essence of songwriting is about. It’s about being able to paint a picture in the listener’s head and give them a peek into another world. Earle seems to have this on lock-down, and I think the sky’s the limit. If I were to guess, I’d say that JTE will be around for a while.