Let's go ahead and get the obligatory bio out of the way: Justin Townes Earle is the son of notorious country-rock bad boy Steve Earle, named for his father's mentor, iconic cult songwriter Townes Van Zandt.
And while that makes for a good story, Earle's music speaks for itself. Understated, sincere and timeless, his ultra-traditional arrangements meld the best of pre-war country, folk and blues. His rich baritone, complete with a charming southern drawl, was made for crooning. Listening to tracks like "They Killed John Henry," it's clear that wasting a voice like that on anything but singing would have been a crime.
Basically, they are songs that could have been written 60 years ago by Woody Guthrie or Hank Williams, a fact that Earle has no reservations about.
"You're never really going to do anything new," he says. "Or very few people do anything astounding and new, like, absolutely fresh. You've gotta work with the lines that have already been laid for you. It's all about finding the roots. Some people are good at it, and some people aren't."
Earle is good at it. Really good at it. But his real talent, one could argue, is a knack for maintaining an authenticity that transcends generations. Earle makes records that a teenage punk can sit down and enjoy alongside his baby-boomer parents and Grand Ole Opry-loving grandparents. No small feat for a 28-year-old who released his debut only three years ago. He believes its just a matter of being honest and shooting straight.
"I think honesty is a key in that," he says. "I've never been afraid of going completely bare-bones. There are a lot of people out there who are really great songwriters, but you can tell that they don't have a whole lot of experience in what they are writing about. They just know how to put a story together. I put myself through a lot of hell in my younger years to gather a lot of experiences so I could write about it. You can tell the difference.
"I don't write anything I don't know," he continues. "and I don't use words that I wouldn't use in conversation. I think that that's really important. That's why everybody loves Springsteen so much. Spingsteen never worked on a Jersey road crew, but he can write a song that a guy who's worked on a Jersey road crew his entire life will just break down and cry over. It's something he grew up around, and he's telling the story very honestly."
While Earle might be a relative unknown compared to The Boss, he's been something of a sensation since the release of his debut The Good Life, and, not surprisingly, his star has continued to rise since the release of Midnight at the Movies last March. In addition to winning Emerging Artist of the Year at the Americana Music Awards in September and garnering nominations for Americana Artist of the Year and Video of the Year at the Nashville Music Awards, Midnight was the eighth highest selling county album of the year on Amazon. His style was even featured in an issue of GQ. All the attention and success, while welcome, was a bit of a shock.
"I didn't expect it at all," Earle says. "And then when Midnight came out we got double the response of Good Life. And we definitely didn't expect that. We actually expected a little bit of a revolt. We're very lucky and blessed that its just kind of taken hold pretty quick.
"And especially in this f—king climate right now," he says, referring to the struggling music industry. "She ain't what she used to be. I got a few years of operating inside the old guard where you'd get a publishing deal and they'd be like, 'We're going to give you $700 a week. Come into the office and write songs.' It doesn't work like that anymore. There's no draws going out. Record labels ain't got no money, and what they do have, they're sure as shit not going to give to you. It's very much back to a blue collar, working-man's world again. It's the people who tour and tour hard who make a splash these days. That's the only way to get it out there."
Spending a majority of his time on the road, including two trips across Australia in two years, Earle is certainly getting it out there. But he wouldn't have it any other way. "I've always had what I refer to as 'motion sickness,'" he says, "I have to keep moving or I get sick."
The same rambling spirit applies to his live show, which Earle says are as varied as his musical influences. No set lists, no structure, no rules. And while that can be frustrating for new band members, it leaves room to custom-fit the performance to the crowd.
"I like to be able to just kinda go wherever I want," says Earle. "Typically, the people who play with me will know what to play next by things I say and stories that I tell. When people start playing with me, it makes them very uncomfortable for the first couple weeks until they start getting the cues down, but then it all starts working.
"There's some nights where I can get away with doing more ballads, and some nights where I can't do any, really. You just gotta go with the crowd and see what they want and how they want it done. Because frankly, tickets are getting expensive and they're the ones paying for them."
Dane Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Justin Townes Earle, with Dawn Landes
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Friday, Jan. 29 (9 p.m. $10/$12. www.thegreyeagle.com)