[30 March 2008]
Justin Townes Earle has some pretty big shoes to fill, considering that he shares his name with two of American music’s best songwriters: Townes Van Zandt, and his father, Steve Earle. However, the younger Earle shies away from the musical styles of these two men, creating his own sound that is an amalgam of Depression-Era folk, classic country, pre-War blues, and early rock ‘n’ roll. On his first full length record, The Good Life, Justin Townes Earle delivers the best debut roots music has seen since Old Crow Medicine Show hit the big time with OCMS in 2004. The album somehow manages to sound like Earle looks on the cover: street urchin skinny and rocker tattooed, fixing you with both an all-knowing stare and smartass smirk.
The album opens with “Hard Livin’”, an uptempo, Paul Burch meets Langhorne Slim number that features the old standby of country music: pain in the ass womenfolk. Catchy, clever, and highly danceable for those who do that sort of thing, it sets the stage for the rest of the record, an amazing collection of songs that flow from one to the other, something that is sadly lacking in many of the albums released in the age of iPod shuffling.
Titular track “The Good Life” is part of the Woody Guthrie tradition, in which Earle somehow manages to make being a hobo sound exciting and romantic instead of, you know, dangerous and smelly: “And all the fancy restaurants won’t let me wait inside / They serve me out the back door and never ask for a dime / You tell me what I’m missing and I’ll tell you where you’re wrong / It’s the good life from now on.” Hell, if I’d known there was free food involved, I’d have become a bum ages ago.
“Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” also embodies country music’s tradition of the ramblin’ man; this time, said man informs his girl du jour that she should be happy to see a no-good jerk like him hit the road: “I’m a wanted man / Is that the kind of life you wanna lead? / If you ain’t glad I’m leaving / Girl, you know you oughta be.” Another country youngster with famous blood, Chris Scruggs, shows up to lend a hand on lap steel, while Cory Younts livens up the background with some sprightly mandolin picking.
The standout track of the album is “Lone Pine Hill”, a starkly beautiful song told from the perspective of a Confederate soldier at the end of the Civil War. Here, Earle seems to divert from the recent songwriting techniques of his father, letting political rhetoric take a backseat to the individual narrative. The sheer hopelessness of 1865 America resonates in Earle’s poignant lyrics, which are reminiscent of William Elliott Whitmore, another up-and-coming roots minimalist.
A couple of songs on the album recall country music’s golden age of the 1950s and ‘60s. “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome” could easily have been sung by Ray Price in some smoky honkytonk 50 years ago. So could “Lonesome and You”, for that matter. Granted, the lyrical territory covered by these two pieces is quite similar, and it certainly doesn’t break any new ground, but they are quality songs nonetheless.
The one major flaw of The Good Life is that the record is too short. With only ten songs and fewer than 40 minutes of music, Earle leaves the listener wanting more. That said, at only 25 years old, Justin Townes Earle has a bright future ahead of him. He’s separated himself from the legacy of his legendary namesakes and found his own voice as an artist. With his extensive experience, eclectic musical influences, and evolving songwriting, he’s poised to become a keystone of the roots music scene. Keep your eye on this one, and if he’s slated to play in a dive bar near you, make sure you step through those swinging doors and pick up a copy of his EP, Yuma. Justin Townes Earle is living proof that despite the freak show that is modern day Nashville, there are still artists out there who revere the deep roots of the American musical tradition while still pushing the boundaries to create something new and wonderful.