How marriage, sobriety and music saved a talented life.
Justin Townes Earle has not led an easy life. His father, legendary musician Steve Earle, left him and his mother when Justin was still a toddler, and his relationship with Steve has been strained at best over the years. By the time he hit his teens, he was hooked on drugs, and as he got older he developed an affinity for alcohol. When he entered adulthood, he lived a wild life, and it cost him dearly in time lost getting his music career started.
“I had my first record deal when I was 18, but I blew it before I even got to finish a record because of my behavior,” Earle says. “I finally made my first record when I was 25.”
With only his mother around to give him any real direction and no true father figure providing guidance or life lessons, the prospect of experimenting with drugs had a certain allure because they were exciting and offered him an escape from the life he knew.
“I was one of those kids that was curious,” he says. “I had to try it, and when I tried it, I realized that I didn’t want to feel the way that I felt, and I’d never felt the way I’d wanted to feel. [The drugs] solved issues for me, temporarily. I wasn’t a dumb kid, though. I believed I was addicted and I knew that I was a junkie.”
Letting his addictions get the best of him created its share of problems for Justin. Earle has been in rehab more than a dozen times in his 32 years of life. He got into a fight with a venue owner in Indianapolis back in 2010 before being jailed overnight. He made the mistake of believing he could keep on skating by at his concerts despite being drunk, because he knew how to flick the switch on when he got on stage. He now realizes there was a disconnect between him and the audience during those shows because he wasn’t in the best frame of mind, but at the time, he thought everything was fine.
“One day when I was going to play a show, my booking watched me drink a bottle of whiskey and said he couldn’t understand a word that I said, and then I got up on stage and it was like it just snapped on,” Earle says. “But that’s the lie, right there. You can lie to yourself [because] you’re pulling the show off.”
And for a long time, this was not the only lie Earle believed. He also bought into the idea that cool, legendary musicians all had to die young. The list of rock and roll luminaries who have suddenly passed reads like an enormous rap sheet. There was a time in Earle’s life where he might have thought it would be hip to die young, to burn out bright rather than fade away. But as time has gone on, his perspective has changed, and so have his priorities.
Earle got married for the first time last October, and this is one of several changes that have caused him to reevaluate his life. No longer intent on raising hell and living a reckless existence that could end at any moment, he now has greater clarity and purpose. He has a greater appreciation for life, for starters, and he no longer romanticizes death. In fact, he laments ever believing in such a notion.
“Death is not cool at all,” says Earle. “And especially when you turn 30, it’s not cool to die whatsoever. Think about Kurt Cobain. I don’t think artists owe anything more than their art to their fans, but what he would be doing right now…when I think about what Kurt Cobain could possibly be doing right now, I mean—holy shit!”
This change in the way he views his own mortality has not only proved to be a positive thing, personally, but has also bled into his creative life as well, and especially on his new album, Single Mothers, which comes out next week. This surprisingly stripped-down ode to people who struggle to get through life leaves behind the fuller production values and more bombastic, upbeat tunes of some of his earlier works. This time around, Earle is more interested in letting the lyrics stand front and center, instead of them getting lost in the walls of vibrant sound that his music has been known for.
Mothers possesses a gravitas that is hard to shake. The bluesy folk title track centers on the destructive results of a broken family viewed from the perspective of the mother, father and child. There is pain and heartbreak aplenty over the death of a loved one in the somber country number “Picture in a Drawer.”
And on “Wanna Be a Stranger,” Earle tackles that sometimes uncomfortable, scary feeling of wanting to disconnect from life as you know it in order to save yourself. Any and all of these songs could be completely autobiographical—the lines “Absent father/He doesn’t seem to be bothered/That he’s forfeited his rights/To his own” from the title track could easily be directed to his father—but that is not necessarily the case, nor is it ultimately the point.
“I try not to talk about the situation as much [in a song] as opposed to the feelings that come with those situations,” Earle says. “I think that’s what’s relatable. Living on the streets and smoking crack; that’s not relatable to a lot of people. But the way I felt when that was happening, you take these feelings and take the specifics out, and you have something that’s translatable.”
Being able to make this distinction—preferring to let the emotions of a situation speak to listeners rather than writing a recap of previous events to find catharsis—is something that has come with time, as have other lessons learned along the way. Without being who he was in his youth, he wouldn’t have the perspective he has on life now. Though it took some time and a host of misadventures and struggles, Earle sees the benefits of having lived the way he did for so long. After all, the path he traveled did lead him to his wife, Jenn.
“I made choices back then that were not good, but my wife says it’s part of what makes me the man I am today and she wouldn’t change my past for anything,” says Earle. “She is an amazing woman. I definitely got the better end of the deal.”
Marriage is having a profound impact on Earle these days, whether he is reveling in his own newfound happiness, learning from the marriage of his younger brother, or looking back at the broken home he grew up in.
“My little brother was married before me, had a kid before me, is having another kid,” he says. “Responsible fathers are not exactly common in my family, and he is the best father I know. It has impacted my life massively.”
Earle is in a better place now than perhaps at any point in his life. The more he talks about where he is today, especially in light of where he has been, the harder it is for him to contain his excitement. He does not bounce of the walls and proclaim that love is the greatest drug in the world, but it is clear that sobriety and marriage have changed him in ways he could not have imagined when he was younger.
It’s all still relatively new to him, so he is simultaneously approaching it with am experienced eye and something akin to wonder, because the world he inhabits today is vastly different from the one he lived in before. “I’ve lived a long life of everything being screwed up, and only a few [things] being OK,” Earle says simply. “I’ve got a long list [of songs I’m writing now], but there’s not going to be any ‘Walking on Sunshine’ shit.”
Earle punctuates this last sentence with a good-natured laugh. He can fully embrace life as a musician and appreciate it more than he ever has before. And whereas drugs were once a respite from reality for him, now it is music.
“It’s an escape for me, but I do my best for it to be an escape for my fans too,” he says. “We’re all trying to get to our own places. We’re not on the same page. It’s pretty amazing when you can bring 2,000 people together and take them out of their place in time in this world—and forget about [life] for two hours. Music just has an incredible healing property in it.”
Justin Townes Earle is performing at Track 29 this Friday at 8 p.m.