Why is the palpable, piercing yowl of emotional hunger in music so hard to resist? The paradox for so many musicians is that the misery that fueled their early work and brought them acclaim often disappears when they find some solace. Solace and success often means songs that suck.
So far, that’s hardly been a problem for 30-year-old Justin Townes Earle, who’ll appear on a double bill with Todd Snider at Track 29 on June 1. Earle has built a career on songs that delve into the pain of his early life, most notably his fraught relationship with his father. “We don’t see eye to eye/I’ll be the first to admit I’ve never tried/And sure it hurts but it should hurt sometimes/We don’t see eye to eye,” he sings about his father in “Mama’s Eyes” from his album, Midnight at the Movies.
Earle is not only Steve Earle’s son—God help him—but he’s also named for Townes Van Zandt. The elder Earle, who seems to have associated successful songwriting with self-destruction, first fell under Van Zandt’s spell as a 17-year-old already out on the road for a year. In a life devoted to trying to outrun the demons snapping at his heels, Van Zandt frequently referred to “my four basic food groups: whiskey, cigarettes, guitar strings and driving” in his performances.
Married six times to five different women, Justin Earle’s father romanticized Van Zandt’s life in early songs reflecting the late singer-songwriter’s rearview-mirror philosophy: The only happiness comes from watching wherever you happen to find yourself disappearing in a cloud of dust of your own making. In an early song called “The Other Kind,” Steve Earle gloried in his rootlessness. “You see it used to be I was really free/I didn’t need no gasoline to run/Before you could say Jack Kerouac you’d turn your back and I’d be gone.”
Even before he’d entered puberty, Justin, the son of Steve Earle’s third wife, Carol, was ready to assume his father’s mantle. Another fatherless son of a fatherless son ready to hit the road running in the wrong direction, he was just 11 when he joined his first band.
“There isn’t a lot to do in Nashville when you are a kid,” he told an interviewer last year, “so I got into a lot of minor trouble … plus I was playing in bad punk bands from the age of 11 or 12 and doing what guys in bands do—smoking dope and drinking liquor.”
His father finally intervened before Justin, 14 at the time, started using what he refers to as “heavier stuff.” Ironically, however, his father still appears to remain ambivalent about drugs. After establishing himself with a string of edgy albums and performances to match in the late 1980s, he crashed. Once his record label’s darling, he disappeared into a toxic fog of heroin and became a pariah. Talking about that period in an interview in Rolling Stone in 1996, he said about his gutter-diving tendencies, “I believe in marriage, and I believe in family, and I want that, too, but I’m still a sucker for the romance of the outlaw, and I hope I stay that way.”
That mix of pleasure and pain is apparent in his son’s song, “Mama’s Eyes,” in which Justin Earle seems resigned to having inherited his father’s deviant gene: “I am my father’s son/I’ve never known when to shut up/I ain’t foolin’ no one/I am my father’s son.”
But on his new album, Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You feel About Me Now, one of the best songs, “Movin’ On,” suggests that he may finally be ready to let the old man go. Set to a chicka-chicka, Johnny-Cash bounce, Earle sings in a voice that belies his relative youth. He sounds world-weary, but determined to outpace the misery that has hobbled him for much of his life.
Growing up and shaking off his father’s legacy must be a scary prospect for a man who has spent much of his life looking in his own rearview mirror and celebrating his escape in song. It remains to be seen whether having found his solace, he risks stifling the muse.
Justin Townes Earle and Todd Snider
8 p.m. • $20/$23
Friday, June 1 Track 29
1400 Market St.
(423) 521-2929 track29.co
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.