Justin Townes Earle was born under the shadow of two great American roots music icons, but has emerged with a distinctive voice in the Americana revival of the 2000s.
Earle is the son of legendary alt-country and rock icon Steve Earle. He was named after singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, his father’s mentor. Throughout his seven studio albums, Earle has often addressed his own pedigree, wrestling with the notion and embracing it while also hitting on themes common in the genres he pulls from, such as lost loves and his own very real struggle with substance abuse.
Born in Nashville, he was raised by his mother and reportedly began using drugs around the age of 12. He’s publicly talked about shooting up at the age of 16. After a night in jail and some time in rehab in 2010, Earle put substance abuse behind him, claiming complete sobriety since then.
In 2010, Earle released “Harlem River Blues” to critical acclaim. The title track earned him an Americana Music Award. He followed that with arguably his strongest studio album, 2012’s “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now,” which reached 37th on Rolling Stone’s top 50 albums of 2012.
Prior to his solo career, Earle played in his father’s band The Dukes and with two Nashville bands, the rock outfit Distributors and bluegrass band The Swindlers, laying a foundation for his own hybrid American roots music.
Through an often intimate portrait of his life, Earle has honed a peerless style of Americana in his music that pulls from traditional country-western, folk, blues, honky-tonk, rock and alt-country, and often vocalizes inherently human growing pains.
“I’ve never been a bashful person — obviously something I get from my father,” Earle said in an interview with The Scotsman newspaper. “There’s nothing for people to figure out about me, no dirt for anybody to dig up about me somewhere in my past because I’ve already given it.”
While seemingly burdened at times by his own heritage, Earle has worked to uncover the heart and soul of American folk music by being an ardent student of the traditional styles and forever pushing to create an authentic sound that transcends those before him. He echoes the best of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Willie Nelson and his own father, but always with a distinct, sometimes contentious, voice. Earle claims influences as varied as Van Zandt, Jimmy Reed, Kurt Cobain, the Replacements, Mance Lipscomb, Ray Charles and the Pogues.
On his 2014 release, “Single Mothers,” Earle highlighted his raw musical talent, recording the entire album live with a four-piece band. They used no overdubs, no other singers and no other players. Seven tracks in, Earle reaches beyond traditional folk themes to pay tribute to Billie Holiday with “White Gardenias,” invoking a loving storyline about a woman on the move.
What perhaps sets Earle apart is an uninhibited ability to seamlessly modulate his style between the foundational genres of American roots music. From an inspirational, Hammond B3-saturated, up-beat boogie backed by a church choir (“Harlem River Blues”), a traditional country-western track straight out of the Willie Nelson playbook (“Learning to Cry”), to a trumpet-laden blues lament about New York City (“Down on the Lower East Side”), Earle has clear fondness for an array of roots styles, and seems to carry the burden of the cities he visits in ghostly folk afterthoughts.
Earle visits Savannah ahead of the release of his eighth studio album, “Kids in the Street,” due out May 26 on New West Records. Earle released his first five albums with the Chicago-based Bloodshot Records and two with Vagrant Records.
The first single from the forthcoming album, “Champagne Corolla,” is an upbeat, horn-blaring blues jam of the later B.B. King sound. Behind a swing beat highlighted with rolling toms, the lighthearted, danceable jam praises the working class women of the south and the ubiquitous Toyota Corolla with pop-country lyrics and just a whiff of country twang in Earle’s voice.
If the first single is any indication, “Kids in the Street” will be yet another uniquely Justin Townes Earle album, carrying on all the musical traditions he was born under and has sharpened through the years.
Justin Townes Earle
When: 8:30 p.m. April 7
Where: Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, 41 MLK Jr. Blvd.