Justin Townes Earle isn’t really sure what to make of some of the new bands and musicians he sees getting attention these days.
“Every time a carpetbagger with a banjo thinks they can play, it can be a little played out sometimes,” Earle says in his typically unvarnished way.
“The real thing exists. People like Malcolm Holcombe in Asheville and Clarence Ashley, who I met in Kentucky. These people still live in these places, and the music is very real. In L.A., it’s covered up in douche bag string bands. It’s created a farce. I still search for the real stuff,” he says.
“I’m only 32, and I do not understand what is happening right now. I don’t understand what people feel in it, but I also understand that ‘feel’ is not what always drives people out to see shows,” says Earle, who will play the Grey Eagle in Asheville on Saturday.
Clearly, Earle is still working it all out for himself. Over the past several years, he’s touched on genres ranging from honky tonk and country to rockabilly and soul. What’s real for Earle, a talented lyricist, is communicating with audiences. Single Mothers, out earlier this fall on a new label, has JTE communicating from a point of sobriety and marriage. His songs still ache, but he’s working shit out, note by note. Early next year, Earle will release a companion record, Absent Fathers, that he says moves even closer to what one might identify as optimism.
“They were both recorded in the same 10-day time frame. The difference is going to be in the outlook. With Single Mothers, I was not in a good place in my head when I was writing those songs, what with the woes of the music industry come my way,” Earle says.
That wrangling gave JTE more time to write. “In that time, my perspective had changed a little bit. I just realized that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It will be a pinhole. It’s not like you’re stepping into full glory,” he says.
So how does it feel to be working free of alcohol and drugs, from the foundation of a strong relationship?
“I was sober for eight years, fell off, got back. It’s a strange thing. You say ‘no’ and they look at you like you stuck your hand down your pants. You would think the social stigma would be with getting stupidly intoxicated, not the other way around,” he says.
“You’re having to learn to rely on yourself more, when it comes right down to it. There’s so much work you can do. I just woke up and didn’t want to die anymore. I just realized I was killing myself slowly and systematically,” Earle says. “Music did get me through. It was the only thing I was good at, the only thing I was praised for. And it is definitely an antidote to the hard side of life.
“At same time, I got very lucky in marrying a wonderful woman. I’m taking the chance to stop and slow down, or I know I would fuck up something great.”
For his Asheville show, the audience should expect a bit of a different show, Earle says, noting that he’s excited about playing with a band that he’s put together.
“I feel a certain relaxation and peace on stage,” he says. Maybe its a bit of a new perspective heading toward a reckoning. No matter. It’s what’s real for Earle right now.
Note: The Grey Eagle this week has a double-dose of awesome singer-songwriter dudes, with Asheville’s own Tyler Ramsey, who plays with Band of Horses, holding a solo show on Friday. JTE follows on Saturday.