The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Interview: Justin Townes Earle

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on May 30, 2011 3:00PM

Photo Credit: Joshua Black Wilkins
Justin Townes Earle's Harlem River Blues wound up on the best-of lists of many music critics last year (including a few of us on the Chicagoist staff), and with good reason. The collection of intensely personal songs shows Earle now fully charting his own course from his famous father, Steve Earle, and firmly established him as a musical force with which to be reckoned. Even as Earle has established a distinct musical identity separate from both his father and his namesake Townes Van Zandt, he's inherited the "hardcore troubadour" lifestyle that derailed Steve Earle's career in the early 90s. Earle freely admits he has some problems, but he said he seems to have them under control for now. "Medications have been helping," Earle said. "But I really think it's more that I've found a happier place."

Earle returns to Chicago for the third time since September to play Millennium Park with opener Andre Williams and the Goldstars as part of the Millennium Park Downtown Sound Series. Earle took a few moments to sit down for a phone interview,

Chicagoist: I've read and listened to you in other interviews describe yourself as a caretaker of Southern music traditions. What exactly do you mean by that?

Justin Townes Earle: The musical styles that I draw from — Delta blues, country, folk, Dixieland, all have a foundation in the South that is unmistakable, and I borrow elements of all of them in creating my own style. You could say that I consider myself a Southern music preservationist.

C: It seems as though your guitar playing style owes itself to a few styles like country blues and ragtime, yet it's distinctively your own. Who were your influences?

JTE: I learned about Lightning Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb through my father. I also picked up a few things from a street player in New Orleans named Frank Schapp. He's an amazing picker. Another guitarist I look up to is a man named Malcolm Holcomb. I've picked up a thing here, a thing there, and incorporate it into my own style. I'm kind of a "collector" of picking styles.

C: Do you think Townes Van Zandt was a Southern music style unto his own? Your father named you after him, after all.

JTE: Townes had a way of writing songs that... he was certainly a man's man, but he had a sensitive side to him that sneaked out often. Townes liked to sing about flowers and still be able to kick your ass with it. He wasn't afraid of being pretty.

C: Is that a lesson you learned early on when you were developing your own songwriting style?

JTE: I think so. With my own songs, I just try to stay true to myself. I have problems if I try to force a song. It has to come naturally.

C: Your songs are able to paint vivid stories of everyday life, particularly the sides of life we don't see in the papers. How much of that comes from personal experience?

JTE: A lot of it comes from observation, being aware of what's going around you. I choose not to hang around with artsy-fartsy people, and that shows in my songs.

C: When you played Metro in February you told the audience that you were already working on the new album. How's that coming along?

JTE: I have four or five songs finished, with another six or seven in the works. Once we're done with this tour, we're looking at getting some studio time to work on the next record.

C: It seems as thought you've really paid attention to Chicago as a market for your music and it's always been a strong market for your father. Do you find people coming to your shows because of your own talent, as opposed to being Steve Earle's son?

JTE: Chicago's been good to my father, there's no doubt about that. This was one of the first markets to give him serious radio play and he's always loved Chicago. I lived in Rogers Park for a little while in my late teens and I root for the Cubs. Chicago is one of my favorite towns.

C: Another Chicago connection you have is your label. How's your relationship with Bloodshot Records?

JTE: I love the folks at Bloodshot. There one of those labels that puts their heart into everything they do. If they had the funding to match their heart, they'd be even bigger than they are.

Justin Townes Earle plays Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion 6:30 p.m. tonight as part of the city's Downtown Sound series, with Andre Williams and the Goldstars opening. All concerts in the Downtown Sound Series are free.