Interview: Justin Townes Earle Talks New Album, Comparisons to His Father + the Future of America
Justin Townes Earle is sitting in the restaurant of a hotel on New York City's Lower East Side, just a few blocks away from where his song "Ahi Esta Mi Nina" takes place. "It's about a Puerto Rican kid from the Alphabets who got locked up on mandatory minimums, and who got out and met his daughter for the first time," Earle explains.
The emphasis on mandatory minimums is not merely for the sake of the song, but rather is intended to build a commentary on the criminal justice system in America. "Mandatory minimums are bulls--t," Earle says, and he hopes as much comes through not just on this particular topic, but many more across his latest record, The Saint of Lost Causes.
"It always feels good to have a record out," he says. "I'm a conceptual writer. When I start writing songs, I know what I want them to be recorded like, I know what I want them to be sonically. I know where the record is going. I've never written more than 12 or 13 songs a year because they all go on my records. But this one, The Saint of Lost Causes, is one of the ones I'm proudest of because it's a social commentary -- real old-school, [Bruce] Springsteen-style, but spread across America, not just Jersey."
Engaging in this kind of storytelling is new for Earle. He admits that, from his first album up to 2017's Kids in the Street, his writing was always very personal, looking inward. On The Saint of Lost Causes, though, he turns his focus outward.
"The times have a lot to do with it," he admits, "but I'm not blaming any one politician. I think we're in trouble. America as a whole, I think we're in a lot of trouble. But this is our fault. I'm realizing that if it happens in America, we let it happen. What happened in Flint, [Mich.], we, Americans, we let it happen."
Flint's water crisis is the topic of one of Earle's new songs, as he elevates the town's rock 'n' roll status to that of the nearby Detroit while taking aim at a major automobile manufacturer: "Now the truth is, we ain't what we used to be / A whole lot of trouble come to our streets / The only one to blame is GMC / If you don't know, baby, let me tell you how I mean."
When the record was announced, Earle said that he believes in the "idea" of America, which can sound like a hopeful statement, but he's quick to say it's far from it.
"I don't think this country ever was a hopeful thing in the first place," he explains. "Unless you're a Native, you're not native to this country. We've persecuted every group that's ever come into this country, and there are dumb people in this country right now that think they own it. We're coming to a crisis. We have the dumbest president we've ever had in our lives ... and I grew up under Reagan, two Bushes, even Clinton. When I walk around the streets in America now, though, I don't feel like I'm an American anymore. I think so many Americans have changed the idea of what that means."
As outward-looking as the album is, Earle admits that it's actually forced him to look more inward than he ever expected.
"My daughter is probably the reason I stopped writing songs that were so inward and started looking out into the world," he admits. "I had to start worrying about the world because of her. I bought her a 9MM [handgun] the day she was born because I'm frightened like hell for her. What's going on right now, I think it started with Nixon and his call to the silent majority. That was a racial call. He started a serious racial divide in America that has not gone away. Reagan didn't do anything about it. Clinton didn't do anything about it; in fact, he added to it with his mandatory f--king minimums."
Though he may sound like he doesn't have much hope for the future, the Nashville-born wunderkind assures his fans that he'll never stop caring about what's happening in the world.
"I have a daughter; I can't stop caring," Earle says, with an obvious hint of pragmatic pride. "I have a mother that I take care of. I can't ever stop caring. What I will stop doing, eventually ... it's what the record says. You push down white trash or poor black people or whoever long enough, we're going to react. We will react. And you won't like it. Baby Boomers love to say they stopped the Vietnam War, but they also ruined the stock market. Congrats, guys. Meanwhile, I can't get a job at McDonald's because of my criminal record. So if I don't play music, I sell dope. I'm a criminal, and if I don't play music, I'd probably be in prison or dead."
When Earle talks about his daughter, Etta St. James, he beams, but he also confesses that his lifestyle isn't conducive to being a stereotypical parent.
"It's hard, man. I've been committed to music since I was 15 years old," he says. "I'm a good father. I taught my daughter to cuss when the Cubs lose — she's an Earle, so she'll be fine. I'm a good father, but I'm a s--tty husband. I'm built for the road; I don't know what the hell to do at home. But you know what? I never said I'd be good at any of that. Nobody can ever ask me to stop doing what I do. If you want to do what I do — like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark — you're committed to it. Everybody else around you has to understand that."
"Nobody can ever ask me to stop doing what I do. If you want to do what I do — like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark — you're committed to it."
As he talks about this life and looks to the examples set by legends including Van Zandt and Clark, Earle also looks to his own father, Steve Earle.
"My dad asked me when I was 14 years old, he asked me if I was gonna leave school," the younger Earle recalls. "I wanted to quit, and so I was allowed to quit by the school board with the approval of my parents. They were just happy I was playing music and not doing anything criminal for a little while. My dad said, 'You want t to do this? Your'e gonna miss funerals. Births. Birthdays. Anniversaries. You're gonna miss a lot.' And sure enough, I wasn't there when my daughter was born. I wasn't there for her first birthday ..."
He pauses for a moment.
"I'm not gonna be there for her second birthday," Earle adds. "But that's how we pay the rent."
The advice given to Earle by his dad is not the only connection the two have. With The Saint of Lost Causes being so obvious in its elucidation of societal issues, many will draw comparisons to the elder Earle's political activism -- but, as his son says, that's plain wrong.
"I don't fault my father for doing that. He's older than me; he's earned it," Earle clarifies. "He didn't write those songs when he was 35 years old. He didn't start writing those songs until he was almost 50. The songs he wrote when he was my age, they were more social: "Copperhead Road," that is social commentary on Appalachia. It's the same thing I'm doing on "Appalachian Nightmare.""
Though he may disagree with certain comparisons to his dad, Earle still welcomes the connection.
"I really do appreciate it," he concedes. "There are a lot of sons and daughters out there who want nothing to do with their parents. Get over that s--t. You think you'd be doing what you're doing with no influence from your mother or father? But, even though it was tough, nobody will ever say that I rode my daddy's coattails. My daddy can't write like me, he can't play guitar like me. I can't write like him, and I don't want to play guitar like him. I think we've done five shows together in 13 years since I started making records. We separated it hard from the beginning, because he wanted me to stand on my own."
"Nobody will ever say that I rode my daddy's coattails."
In 2019, it's safe to say that Earle is standing on his own. With The Saint of Lost Causes, in the midst of hopelessness and despair, he paints an unforgettable picture of a beautiful, struggling country through his percussive guitar work, instantly recognizable vocals and inimitable storytelling. As he sings in the album's title track, "Ain't nobody born bad / Takes a whole lot of hurting / Therein lies one of life's biggest lessons / Ain't got nothing 'til we deserve it."
Earle admits that he's not a religious man, but there is some type of redemption that his songs point toward, even as they share bleak stories from across America. But even in that bleakness, there is still a sense of unity that he hopes comes through on this album.
"I've been asked if I feel weird about writing a song from the perspective of a Puerto Rican from the Lower East Side or from the point of view from a black man from the Jordan Downs housing projects in Los Angeles," Earle shares. "No! We're Americans. We might come from everywhere, but I want everyone who listens to this album to understand: We. Are. Americans."
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