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Justin Townes Earle: Living for the Tiny Revelations

The singer-songwriter is now sober, happily married, and back with a beautiful new record called 'Single Mothers.'
September 5, 2014, 5:21pm

These days, Justin Townes Earle is happy—like, genuinely happy. That’s saying a lot, considering the life of the singer-songwriter from Nashville, who releases his sixth record Single Mothers on September 9, hasn’t ever really been that way.

Despite being named after two legendary musicians—his father Steve Earle and his best friend Townes Van Zandt—the life of JTE has been strained. His relationship with his father has always been one of question, mainly because it’s something that hasn’t ever really been there. From age two on, his mother raised him alone, and throughout his musical career he’s openly spoke about substance addiction and depression starting at a young age. His music reflects these themes—simple and sparse songwriting over music that sounds like it’s made for sitting on a porch in the Midwest, sipping some lemonade with friend and music about What It All Means. Single Mothers, with its loaded album title, fits nicely within his discography, but on the LP he’s grown up and, rather than looking at the mistakes of the past, he’s focusing on the future.

At age 32, Townes Earle has now found sobriety and a healthy relationship. Earlier this year, he was married and spent time out in Utah, just floating around, reminding himself that the world is bigger than the back alley behind your apartment in which you smoke a cigarette. He recently moved back to Nashville after spending five years in New York City. When we talked on the phone a few weeks ago, he spoke through his heavy southern drawl candidly and with the confidence of someone who has their shit together. “We make life a lot harder than it should be,” he said. Indeed. Life is about those tiny revelations—the ones that seem so obvious, but always somehow so hard to reach.

You’re living in Nashville again. What was the transition from New York City back to your hometown like?
Oh god, it was murder. One of the big reasons that I moved downtown was simply to be able to look out my window and see something going on and to be able to step out my door and walk a block and get something to eat and pack a cigarette. Moving back here, that was the biggest shock, I just found it completely uncivilized to have to get in my car to get groceries.

The thing here that’s gotten even more irritating because you got all these people moving in back in the city with a town full of douchebags because of that goddamn TV show. This town, I had a fairly unstable childhood, I lived in over 30 houses in this city, all of which are gone.

I’ve never been to Nashville. I was under the impression there was a burgeoning scene?
That’s the thing, I read an interview where one of the guys from the show said that ‘we brought a good image to Nashville’ and they’re very pleased with the tourism, all this stuff and it’s a guy that moved from Brentwood, California to Brentwood, Tennessee. I don’t want to hear somebody with such creativity telling anyone anything. It just keeps getting like this—they like to think that they’re creating something cultured or something like that but—I’m sorry sequined jeans with button downs pockets on the ass, I’m sorry but we’re still stuck in 1990 here.

Let’s talk about Single Mothers.
I’m feeling just as good about this record as I have all of my other ones. I always have a little bit of apprehension about it—you’re throwing art out into the world and hoping people like it but I feel, I’ve so far been lucky in that I haven’t made any albums that I hate. I don’t regret a single track on any of them. I’m hoping that this one, hopefully this one will turn out the same but I’m just getting geared up. I’ve never really put my weight and worried about what people say about me. I’m just worried about who pays my wage, what they think and so the day that my clothes just start flopping then I’ll worry but this is a seat of the pants business and if you’re going to worry you need to realize that probably your life span in this business is going to be really short so you might as well enjoy it while you can.

This is your sixth record. What’s it like to continue to come back to the well?
I’ve always been one of those people where I’m not afraid to experiment with my music. I like a lot of different kinds and my records are pretty vastly different from each other. I’ve always found a lot of inspiration in just what I’m doing right now, I’m sitting at my desk looking out the window and watching the city go by. I have a bad habit of overhearing conversations. This record around I spent six months out west out in the middle of Utah and that made a big impression on me and was definitely something new. The trick to not ending up and stagnating in this business is to do your best to not make the same record twice and remember that art is about growth. It’s not about figuring out what you do and doing it. It’s about growth.

Tell me about your time in Utah.
Oh, I got married.

Congratulations.
Yeah, that was the reason I ended up out there. Getting married has been an amazing change in my life and it all started out there. We spent the six months kind of just roaming around Utah and northern California and places like that and it was good for a change of scenery for a little while, to see a little bit of different movement of life there. Boy is it different out there, I’ll tell you what. It’s different from anything I know and there’s a pretty big diversity between New York and Nashville. It was definitely a strange place to be but anybody who says that they hate the West has got to be ridiculous. The sky is huge, it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It brings about a more open airy form of inspiration than the seemingly claustrophobic nature of the city.

Absolutely. My parents recently retired out to Colorado and I was visiting there earlier this summer. I just spent ten days on their deck, looking up and being like, “Oh yeah, there are stars.”
It’s beautiful. It’s incredible. I drove through the west all the time on tour, never spent any long periods of time out there and never thought that I would ever consider moving out there. The southern west coast, definitely not, but I might end up in the Pacific Northwest at some point in the reasonably near future.

You’ve been very vocal with your struggles in the past, whether it’s with substance or relationships. How is your life right now, and what’s your outlook on the future like?
I’m without question in the best place that I’ve been in my life. I have somebody who has promised to take care of me and I believe will, which is a massive, massive change. I’ve never been one to—I don’t regret my past, like my wife says I am what I am today because of it but these days it’s more of a cautionary tale for me. I look forward to the future and I didn’t realize how little hope I had for the future before. I had lost faith, before I met my wife I had lost faith in women and love and life wasn’t far behind it. I think that the changes that we need come and that’s about as philosophical as I can get, it comes when we need it and I do believe that unfortunately most people will never know it but the feeling that comes from that person that you know is going to be there for you is the most overwhelming thing on the face of the earth. Anybody who goes through an experience like that travels less and goes through and experience like that comes back the same man that they were, they need to go back and try again.

This is probably an obvious statement, but it has to feel good that you’re in a place feeling that way.
Definitely. It’s hard and I don’t think it’s another thing you don’t realize until you’re out of it but it’s hard. We make life a lot harder than it should be. People who have the tendency to look down on themselves especially make life very hard on ourselves. I figured out that half the obstacles in my life I threw down in front of myself and there’s plenty of them that are passed around freely. I think better of myself, I feel better about myself these days and that helps me know that life is more than just what happened to me when I was kid and more than what happened to me in past relationships. It’s a lot broader of a thing than that and as soon as I started thinking about it like it’s not about instances and it’s about the whole goddamn thing, as soon as I quit focusing on points in time and started focusing on lives it made a big difference.

It’s great to hear you’re in that place.
I’ll tell you the main thing that started it and made it possible was lots of medication and a doctor. It was definitely something that was necessary; I’d say my serotonin levels were a little off.

What do you think of this whole “country music revival?” The genre has obviously always been popular, but it’s being looked at with a different lens now. For example, Rolling Stone recently launched a country specific website.
Well, it’s definitely strained. What is considered country music these days makes me fighting angry. All this dumb shit that sounds like hip hop, I don’t even know the names of the motherfuckers; it’s just ridiculous what they call country music these days. These people think that they’re doing something good for Nashville, like they’re bringing some kind of good image here, we already had a good image. They’re fanboying all over it. You would never guess if you hung out in this city for a week and didn’t know anything about it, you would never guess that fucking Hank Williams ever set foot in this son of a bitch. I think the main focus of it is that goddamn TV show and that’s where all this bullshit has come from. Nashville was already enough of a tourist pain in the ass and now it’s ridiculous. We got way more way more people than the infrastructure can handle and but it’s all brought about by that show. It’s all pop culture. How many women do you see each day walking around this goddamn town in way too short shorts and cowboy boots?

What bothers you so much about it?
Well the only thing that makes me mad is just the complete and total disregard for what came before, the trampling of our culture here. When I was a kid you could walk down the street in Nashville no matter what you say hi to somebody they say hi back. That’s all changed here. That’s the problem. New York has a forcefulness about it because it’s been the way it is for so long that the neighborhood forces itself upon you. Nashville doesn’t have that backbone so here there’s people moving in here and forcing themselves upon neighborhoods like fucking John Rich built a house on top of Love Circle, which was a public park where when I grew up watching the fireworks. It was right in the middle of my neighborhood. Love Circle has a bunch of beautiful old houses that wrap around it, gorgeous old houses built up the side of this hill. Now in place of the small park that was on top it’s John Rich’s fucking gigantic, ugly, square space age looking fucking house that looks down over Nashville. That’s the kind of thing that I’m talking about. If that was supposed to be built on, we would have built on it a long time ago. It was a watch tower during the Civil War and now there’s a fucking douchebag living on it. A total douchebag.

Eric Sundermann hates douchebags. He's on Twitter@ericsundy

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