The first time I saw Justin Townes Earle was on stage at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. He was opening for Gillian Welch. He was rail thin, in a crew cut and tailored suit, with a big bow tie and heavily tatted hands. He picked notes, played hard chords fast, and slapped his small guitar’s strings percussively while he jerked in a stilted, inspired manner, belting out traditional hymns, classic blues numbers, and originals that sounded like classics. He had patter like a circus caller and he referred to a heckler as “sonny boy.” He’d just moved to New York from his native Nashville, where he was born 26 years before to country legend Steve Earle and named after Townes Van Zandt, America’s greatest and most-troubled songwriter (after Hank Williams). He’d soon release Harlem River Blues, a critically-praised album he couldn’t enjoy the fruits of because he’d fallen into heavy cocaine and alcohol use. (I saw him play during this time; it was not a good show.) But he was soon sober again, and working on Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, a soul record he cut in four days with a full band. We talked minutes after a show in Savannah, with his crowd’s roar still in the background.
THE BELIEVER: Most people can see the link between the country and folk world you were born into, and the worlds of punk, blues, and rock ’n’ roll that you’ve been a part of—but where and when did your soul influence come from?
JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE: It came along very young. I mean, I grew up in a very racially mixed neighborhood. You know, I had a lot of black friends growing up, and I would go to their houses for dinner and their parents listened to Al Green and Sam and Dave, and you know, it was the 1980s so, you know, there was the occasional white younger parents that were listening to soul. I mean, I’m definitely more of a Memphis soul fan, and I love MoTown, but if I had to take Stax or Motown, I’d pick Stax. You know?
BLVR: Was doing a project like this on your radar for a while?
JTE: Oh, it definitely had been on my radar for a while. I’ve always thought my records should be records. You know, I don’t just, like, write a group of songs and see if they fit together. I actually just write a few songs like this for this style of production. And so, I think, once again, what I was running into was a monetary issue that kept me from recording like this. Because an analog recording is, even though it’s considered primitive these day, is not cheap. I mean, the tape is gonna be very expensive, and just the process itself is a little more time consuming.
BLVR: What’s the reaction so far?
JTE: Well, we’re still kind of waiting for a reaction. The record doesn’t come out ‘til next week and people are just being introduced, it’s just starting to be played on the radio. So we’re kind of watching and waiting for the reviews and you know what I mean, like it’s going to start rolling in. But I think that there’s definitely going to be a certain amount of backlash, and there already was one review that came out that was, that was basically some twit complaining that I didn’t make Oliver Blues again. You know, there’s gonna be a lot of that, and I didn’t get into music to become, you know, just a blues musician or a country musician, or you know. I’m a singer/songwriter, in my book, means I get to do whatever I want.
BLVR: You moved from Nashville to New York in 2009. Does it feel good these days to get back to Tennessee?
JTE: Well, I do have to get out of New York now and then, I do. I have a house in Nashville at the moment and an apartment in New York, and you know, I, because of life, my relationships, I’m spending more time in Nashville than I want to. I’d definitely prefer to be in New York. I’ve kind of come to a standoff with my hometown because, you know, I just don’t recognize it anymore. It’s not the city I grew up in. Every house I grew up in has been torn down and there’s a condo in its place. So, you know, Nashville kind of abandoned itself, you know, and it definitely infuriated me. You know, and that’s why I moved to New York when I did. I mean, my girlfriend likes New York but she doesn’t like it as much as I do. She definitely does not want to live there and raise kids there. But I have told her that there’s no way in hell that I am letting go of a New York City apartment. And, you know, I have to have some time in the city. You know, because the city has become a very important place to me artistically. I find it to be one of the most, uh, it’s every bit as amazing to me as the first time I showed up in New York, when I was, you know, 15 years old. So it still kind of awes me every day and something surprises me and I learn something new; I see something new. And I miss that every day, I miss walking everywhere and interacting with the city as opposed to Nashville where, there’s not a store within walking distance of my house.
BLVR: Early in your tour for the last record, you got arrested [and charged with public intoxication, resisting law enforcement, and battery] then entered rehab for the 13th time. And now you’re out on tour again. Is it hard to stay away from all those vices and stuff, when you’re on the road?
JTE: Well, you know, it’s really as hard as you make it on yourself. I don’t have a no alcohol period policy. I have a no alcohol in my dressing room policy. I allow my guys to keep a six-pack of beer – I know they’re not big drinkers, so it’s not a problem. So that’s kind of the thing that makes it easy, that I just surround myself with people who aren’t drinkers, and it makes it a lot easier. The guys that play with me now will have a beer after the show. I personally, I liked weed for a long damn time and I still do, I mean, that’s what I prefer to stick to.
But yeah, last year, I got myself into several situations and got myself into a place personally where I was not happy with what I was doing with myself. So you know, I think this new record shows a lot of that, and the fact that I learned massively from that experience.
BLVR: Yeah, and I found, kind of, what you’ve said in other interviews about addiction and recovery – it’s so honest.
JTE: Finally, like after years, I’ve given into my doctors and talk to them about meds and they give me, which, you know, keep getting more and more, but you know, I also have, been feeling better than I have in my whole life for a long time. So I think the thing that I had to get across was that my decisions are just not the best. I really just don’t know what’s best for me a lot of times, and I just gotta be willing to take help.
BLVR: Yeah, that’s why there are other people around. Well, is there anything else you want to add or you’d like people to know about the record or when they come to see your show or anything like that?
JTE: Yeah, I think people should know this record is not as far of a departure as it feels like. I think that if they listen closely, they’ll find the connections between country music and soul, because it all came from the same region. It came from very similar peoples, right next to each other, but for some reason, there was a separation that lasted for a long time, and the first place where that was broken was musically. So it’s a pretty fuckin’ powerful. I hold music in a very high regard, especially a lot of the stuff that was coming out in Memphis in the early 60s. It just had those life-changing abilities.