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Justin Townes Earle carves out his own legacy

I remember banging around the streets of South Nashville, shirtless, in a pair of Umbros and some beat-up Air Jordans with my head shaved and a fucking rat tail down the middle of my back," recalls Justin Townes Earle of his less than glamorous childhood. "I don't ever want to go back to that."

That's understandable. Ill-advised fashion decisions aside, Earle overdosed five times before he had even turned 21. He discovered the path to self-destruction at twelve in his grandmother's pill case. Now sober, he outlived his sordid past to carve out a new legacy for himself in the shadow of the two icons whose names he carries. Justin Townes Earle is a hefty handle, if there ever was one: His middle name comes from Townes Van Zandt, and the surname he shares with his father, Steve.

Steve left Justin and his mom when the younger Earle was a toddler. Although he wasn't around for much of Justin's childhood, Steve still had a profound influence on his life and, as a result, Justin took to music at a young age, playing in the bluegrass-oriented Swindlers and, later, the Distributors, a more aggressive outfit. But music wasn't the only one of his father's proclivities that Justin inherited; the two also shared a similar taste for drugs. For his part, Steve was a well-known heroin user whose habit got so bad at one point that he once stopped performing and recording music for two years and later ended up serving jail time on drug and firearms charges.

Steve noticed that Justin's passion for the poison was beginning to seriously affect his life. Hoping to steer him away from drugs, he enlisted his troubled son to play in his touring backup band, the Dukes, in which Justin played guitar and keyboard. The plan sort of backfired, though. As might be expected, the road isn't the best place for a drug-addled teen to try to get clean, and Justin's habits only got worse. Not wanting to see him destroy himself any further, Steve made a tough call and fired Justin from the band. Unfortunately, the move did nothing to impede Justin's addiction.

In one subsequent incident, after being up for fourteen days straight, Justin suffered respiratory failure and was rushed to a nearby emergency room, where his clothes had to be cut off of him so he could be saved.

Talk about a wake-up call. Drug-free, Justin now focuses on his music. And he's making quite a name for himself, thanks to critically acclaimed recordings like last year's Midnight at the Movies. Amazon listed it as the No. 8 best country record of the year, and picked "Walk Out" as the No. 2 country song — and it's not even the best song on the record. That distinction belongs to "Mama's Eyes," in which he reflects upon his life, about how closely his backstory resembles that of his father's, and how the strength of his mother, Carol Ann Earle, ultimately helped pull him through those dark days: "I was a young man when/I first felt the pleasure and the feel of a sin/I went down the same road as my old man/I was younger then/Now it's three a.m. and I'm standing in the kitchen/Holding my last cigarette/Strike a match and I see my reflection in the mirror in the hall/And I say to myself/I've got my mama's eyes."

"Mama's Eyes" was also praised by Esquire, which listed it as one of "50 songs every man should be listening to." And the rest of Midnight at the Movies is equally laudable, showcasing all the best aspects of Southern music — from gospel to ragtime to good old-fashioned rock and roll.

"I've always referred to myself as a Southern music conservationist," Justin points out. "My music comes from everywhere. It comes from the Replacements; it comes from fucking AC/DC! It's about finding those little bits from other places: You have to be surgical about it."

As varied as his music is, however, one thing it isn't is alt-country.

"I think it's a terrible term — it's either country or it ain't," he maintains. "It was a classification that came out in the mid-'90s, and now it's just a death nail in your coffin. You don't want to be referred to that way. If your first record comes out and someone calls you alt-country, you can pretty much kiss your ass goodbye."

Justin's purist country convictions have deep roots. The guy is named after Townes Van Zandt, after all, whom dubbed "one of the greatest country and folk artists of his generation." There's no denying that honky-tonk is in his blood. Although he's playing larger theaters now, he fondly recalls the rowdy bars of his past. "I was tried and true into the honky-tonk," he declares. "I loved beer drinking and hardwood floors. As I'm getting older, I'm liking the idea of theaters as opposed to rock clubs, but I still want people to drink, though. Most people ain't going to the show if they can't drink."

Besides moving up to theaters, the 28-year-old is performing in places that a little rat-tailed kid from Nashville could only dream of playing. "I'm going back to Australia in April to do some festivals and some club shows," he says excitedly. "I've played pretty much everywhere in Europe that you'd want to play, and some places that you wouldn't want to play."

Regardless of where he's playing, you can count on him to look dapper. He cleans up nicely; just ask GQ. Last year the magazine named him as one of its fashion icons, and he will soon be featured in an upcoming issue as one of the most fashionable men of 2010, two distinctions he's very proud to have.

"Growing up with my mom, we didn't have a lot of money," he confesses. "So I think it's pretty cool. I like to dress well, and I like nice clothes. On stage, I wear some shit that most people wouldn't wear — orange pants with a plaid jacket and suspenders with a bow tie. I've always liked that stuff; that's me getting into my damn evangelistic mode."

Walking around the streets of New York City, the place he calls home these days, with a pompadour and bow tie, Justin Earle has come a long way from his dark, Umbro-clad days in South Nashville.

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Andy Thomas is a music journalist who hopes other music journalists write nice things about the music he performs. He lives in Denver with his wife, their two cats and a massive pile of unfinished projects.
Contact: Andy Thomas