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Songwriter comes into his own

Justin Townes Earle transcends his family ties, middle name with exceptional sophomore effort

The Columbian
Published: February 12, 2010, 12:00am

o What: Justin Townes Earle, in concert. The concert is for adults 21 and older.

o When: 9 p.m. Feb. 14.

o Where: Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E. Burnside St., Portland.

o Cost: $11 in advance and $13 the day of the show through TicketsWest,

800-992-8499 or ticketswest.com.

o Information:

503-231-9663 or dougfirlounge.com.

Forget that Justin Townes Earle’s middle name comes from a revered songwriter, and his last name comes from another. When you listen to his songs, you’ll hear a talent who stands on his own. Sure, his voice sometimes betrays his genes, but where father Steve Earle is rooted in twang and Texas soil splashed by Celtic rains, Justin is more likely to pluck the banjos of old-timey country or revisit jug-band music or ragtime. The sole cover on his exceptional album, “Midnight at the Movies,” is the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait.” Clearly, sounding like his dad is a non-issue.

But a Nashville-raised kid named after a writer his famous father so worships, Townes Van Zandt, has to know a thing or two about songwriting. You can hear it in the confessional “Mama’s Eyes,” with its starkly matter-of-fact lyrics, “I am my father’s son/ we don’t see eye to eye/ and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve never tried,” and definitely in the stunning final cut, “Here We Go Again,” which nakedly faces the inevitability of love and heartache.

Justin’s first album, 2008’s well-received “The Good Life,” was a fully realized work from a welcome new talent, but “Midnight at the Movies” ranks Justin with Nashville’s best. It also earned him the Americana Music Association’s 2009 New & Emerging Artist of the Year award. Writer Lynne Margolis spoke to Justin following the album’s release, and the following are excerpts from that interview, which have been edited for clarity and space.

With your middle and last names, did it ever feel overwhelming when you started to write songs?

o What: Justin Townes Earle, in concert. The concert is for adults 21 and older.

o When: 9 p.m. Feb. 14.

o Where: Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E. Burnside St., Portland.

o Cost: $11 in advance and $13 the day of the show through TicketsWest,

800-992-8499 or ticketswest.com.

o Information:

503-231-9663 or dougfirlounge.com.

I think people talked about it so much that I started to ignore it. I was never really affected by it. I never felt any need to live up to anything.

When did you decide that you wanted to write?

When I was about 15, I had officially quit school and was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life, and I was trying to settle between whether I was gonna write songs or sell drugs. And I decided that I liked doing drugs too much; that it would probably be better if I didn’t sell them.

On the last album and this one, the two songs that are the most moving are the most confessional, too. Is it hard to put those emotions right out there?

No, I think it’s easy, because that’s just my natural state. I’ve always been a just-put-it-out-there (type). It’s better to put it out there, so people don’t find out.

Ha. You’re probably right. Where did the ragtime and Tin Pan Alley influences come from?

They came from growing up around Nashville. … We’re right in the middle of the most rich, saturated area of music in the world. You know — blues, bluegrass, mountain music, jazz and rock — it all came from that area of the country. And I had a chance to study a lot of very strange and unusual, interesting music. You get Elvis, but you also get the Othar Turner bands.

Yeah, from the Delta to Arkansas to Appalachia. Didn’t you study at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, too?

Briefly. I’ve always been a terrible student. I was a total slacker when I was there. I think I went to a class maybe two or three times, and then I started chasing after the girl who worked at the snack bar.

How would you say “Midnight at the Movies” differs from your debut album?

On the last record, I stayed pretty true to traditional format and structure with the songs

that I wrote, mainly because I was basing it off a lot of songs that I had written years ago. But this time, it’s definitely a more grown-up record. I really don’t think there’s any angst. Or not much angst.

You can tell that there’s been a real evolution. This one is … more polished.

We wanted to add some accents of something a little more modern, but still without trampling the traditional roots.

Was it hard for you to come up with stuff for the second album?

I’ve always been a cocktail-napkin writer. … I’ve never just sat down and wrote. You’ll never find me in a quiet room with a guitar and a notepad.

Is there one song that you regard as a particular favorite?

I’m really just proud of this record as a whole, but “Mama’s Eyes” is one of my favorite songs, just because that’s how I talked. I always start my songs like I know what I’m working toward, and how good I execute them from the beginning to the middle is in question sometimes. On this one, I feel really good about the way that it came together, from a writing standpoint, more so than anything I’ve ever written. It’s my favorite song of mine.

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