Alt-country troubadour Justin Townes Earle returns with a mature batch of tunes centered around changing landscapes and the promise of the future.
If you follow any number of Nashville musicians or residents, for that matter, on social media, you’ll notice a common topic is broached. Gentrification and the resulting pallor it casts over all that has made Music City USA so iconoclastic has become a hot-button issue over the past decade.
Legendary recording studios, historic music venues, and landmark restaurants have all been shuttered in recent years. In their places stand high-rent condominiums and sleek, high-end restaurants designed with little regard for the city’s heritage, instead aimed at fashionable out-of-towners and flushed transplants swarming into the city for new jobs or fresh starts.
It’s become a thorny issue for municipalities all across the nation. How do you balance the need for growth and prosperity with the determination and reverence to also hold on to the particular things that make a city unique? It’s a question with few easy answers, but it is a subject that keeps artists like Justin Townes Earle focused on examination.
A Nashville native, and until recently a full-time resident, Earle spends a good portion of his latest album, Kids in the Street, referencing some of the lower-middle-class Nashville neighborhoods that have been losing the fight against gentrification and suburban sprawl. In the title track, he hearkens back to his early ‘90s childhood, telling stories of playing ball long past dark with the neighbors and pleasantly enjoying hearty conversation and youthful hijinks. It was all fun and good, a bit of “low-rent living / back when life was cheap”.
Elsewhere, the changing landscapes of his environment offer moments of nostalgic reverie. On the shuffling, “Maybe a Moment”, Earle sings of drumming up some trouble, dodging through town in a fast car stocked with cheap Thunderbird wine and the promise of memorable thrills ahead. It’s easy to picture this action taking place in a city that no longer provides the potential for danger or the cast of characters available to provide camaraderie.
An automobile serves as the framing device for another ode to a not-too-distant past on “Champagne Corolla”. Here, Earle pays homage to a vehicle that simply does what it’s intended to do. He doesn’t need a fancy convertible or luxury car to drive through the neighborhood when his champagne (not pink) economy sedan will do just fine. It’s an insightful parallel to the neighborhood situation. Earle’s Nashville of memory may not find itself featured prominently in the travel section of the New York Times, but it works, has character and isn’t obsessed with being something it isn’t.
Ironically, this is Earle’s first studio album not recorded in Nashville. Like they say, sometimes you have to go away to comprehend where you come from fully. Earle decamped to Omaha, Nebraska this time around and worked with veteran producer Mike Mogis at his Arc Studios. Also marking the first time he’s worked with an outside producer, Earle has stated in recent interviews that Mogis’ work with Jenny Lewis and M Ward served as the impetus for their collaboration.
The two don’t so much reinvent Earle’s sound as they do augment it. They strip away some of the languid approaches in favor of snappier, soulful arrangements that drive the momentum forward. The B-3 and electric guitar shuffle of “Short Hair Woman” swings forth with rollicking glee, while the reckless swagger of the slightly menacing jailhouse stomp of “15-25” sends a similar vibe pulsating through the speakers.
Earle still hasn’t lost his way with downbeat ballads or the songwriting tradition as powerful renditions of both “Same Old Stagolee” and “If I Was the Devil” both attest, but in all, this album shines a bit brighter in mood and tone than his other more recent releases. That makes sense as Earle has embarked on a new chapter in his life with sobriety, marriage, and impending fatherhood all leading the way.
Major life events always seem to cause inner reflection and examination. In this regard, Kids in the Street seems to be the moment where Earle is taking stock of his life, remembering back on what got him to this point, and looking onward to what may greet him on this next phase. With his eye for detail as sharply attuned as ever, it’s likely that he’ll be candidly depicting it all.