“He was a junkie; I’m a gangster.” So says Justin Townes Earle, summarizing the differences between his own substance abuse issues and those that once haunted the career of his father Steve Earle during the 1980s and early 1990s. As the guest on this week’s episode of Walking the Floor, the younger Earle – whose new album Kids in the Street was released in May – talks honestly and humorously about his unique career, painting the picture of a pre-growth spurt Nashville, a post-prison Steve Earle and the unexpected effect of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York on a young generation of folkies-in-training.
Below, we’ve gathered up our favorite highlights from the hour-long conversation, tossing a few extra highlights into the mix to apologize for our one-day publishing delay.
While much has been made of Earle’s struggle with addiction, he kicked off his career as a clean-living musician. He remains sober to this day.
“When I started making records, I was sober,” he says. “I got all my craziness out of the way as a coffeehouse musician and a roadie.” After nearly a decade of sobriety, though, Earle fell off the wagon two times, ultimately regaining his sobriety with the help of a controversial plant. “I am a participant of the marijuana maintenance program,” he says proudly.
Although he prefers living in New York, he’ll always make records in Nashville.
“If you want to gamble and get hookers, you fly to Vegas,” he reasons. “If you want to make records, you fly to Nashville. No matter what music industry town there is. . .we still got the better players in Nashville, and there’s more of them there, so you get your pick.”
If you’re going to assemble your backing band in Nashville, though, you shouldn’t get too attached to the musicians.
“It’s one of those things you have to get used to in Nashville,” he says, explaining that sidemen often jump ship for better-paying jobs with different bands. It’s a problem that’s played his own group multiple times. “I’ve had two different pedal steel players. One now plays for Josh Turner, and one plays for Miranda Lambert. In Nashville, you can’t get pissy when they get that good job, and that’s one thing that doesn’t happen as much in Nashville because it’s such a player-oriented community: when somebody has to leave the band they were in because they got offered a $1500-a-week job playing steel, everybody applauds them and says ‘Congratulations.'”
Producers: don’t even think about turning on that click track.
Whether he’s working with an outside producer like Mike Mogis or handling those duties himself, Earle abides by the same rules in the recording studio. He records his guitar parts and melodies alongside the rest of the band, with everyone performing at the same time. “My vocals are [recorded] with the basic track, period,” he says. “I hate doing [overdubs]. I like my vocal, bass, drums, guitar all tracked live. No click at all.”
His approach to the guitar is unusual, rooted in a modified clawhammer picking style.
“I just do two-fingered picking,” he says, “then I do a swat kind of thing, almost like a clawhammer, except you’re keeping your index finger free to get in the middle. You go down with your thumb on the low, [then hit] the high strings with your three fingers on the nails, but then you’re able to pull out your lead parts with your index fingers.” Got that? Good; now go practice by playing “Harlem River Blues.”
Nirvana’s Unplugged album was, ironically enough, the record that pushed Earle away from grunge music and closer to country.
As a child, Earle remembers receiving records from his father, who toured constantly during Earle’s youth. His stepmother, an A&R rep in Los Angeles, would also send him new music. “I guarantee I was the first kid in Nashville that was a Nirvana fan,” he promises, “because I had Bleach in 1989.” Years later, Earle had an epiphany when he heard Nirvana covering Leadbelly’s “In the Pines,” renamed for the MTV Unplugged album as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” “That was the changing moment,” he adds. “I was introduced through that song to Leadbelly. And I end up seeing videos of Leadbelly playing, and he’s playing with his band, and then here comes Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Woody Guthrie, and right there, at that moment, my love of punk and rock and grunge didn’t stop, but it went to the back burner. It didn’t matter at that point, and the wheels just went in reverse, and I started going backwards. I was one of those weird kids. While I did own Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and would listen to it with my friends, I was sneaking off and listening to Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and things like that when I was 12 or 13.”
Raised in south Nashville, Earle remembers a very different city than the bustling boom town of 2017.
“Nashville, when I was a kid, was a shithole,” he says frankly. “It was dangerous. It was rough. . .It was a tough town, and East Nashville was the toughest of it. We used to say that the only time people from this side of the river go to the East Side is when their cousins get out of prison and they go to a party at their aunt’s house.”