Demons descend in order to hold you down. Demons can be temporarily expelled, but you best believe they will return, and it is not the fault of those they inhabit. These vessels aren’t at fault. They don’t welcome them back in their lives. They’re been there from the start.
Justin Townes Earle first heard the demon chorus at 12, a young age indeed to be shooting up every day. The stellar but underrated songwriter and old-timey guitar slinger was an acquired taste. He spoke the type of Capital-T Truths that only the bravest of troubadours touch, those not concerned with the approval of the squeamish critical gauntlet one must pass in order to ascend to the fame level of, say, his father Steve. If you were able to get mentally tough enough to not look away, you could detect the salt-of-the-earth humor and humility underneath the surface of his terse, unblinking songs. A new husband and the father of 2-year-old old named Etta, JTE took his final dose this week far too early.
It’s a real shame half the headlines over the past two days mention “son of Steve Earle”, mainly because JTE never once sounded anything like his father leaning more toward the sad sack southern bad-assery of his middle-name-sake , the original sad sack southern badass himself , Townes Van Zandt. Much has been made of the tumultuous relationship between Big Steve and his boy, but you can skip all the articles and just listen to JTE’s stunning “Mama’s Eyes” if you want to know everything you need to know about it.
“I am my fathers son/I ain’t never known when to shut up/I ain’t fooling anyone”
“Mama’s Eyes” exists on the masterful Midnight At the Movies, for our money the absolute best front-to-back record in the JTE pantheon, standing only slightly taller than debut The Good Life and other career highlight Harlem River Blues. On later records Earle experimented with electric guitars and full band dynamics, maudlin goth-country, and dust bowl stringband-isms, but along the way he never lost the super-rare common folk muse that allowed him to be the only artist ever to convincingly cover The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait”.
The first time I saw Justin Townes Earle I had never heard of him. We were in Austin and took a drive into the Hill Country, ending up in one of those 500-strong Texan towns where the trucks had gun racks and Grateful Dead stickers and the trailers displayed Vote Obama placards on their dirt patch yards. Hippie redneck country. And the only place to grab a drink was a tumbledown assembly hall of sorts with picnic benches full of hootin’ an hollerin’ drunk folk and plates piled high with rib bones. There was entertainment of some sort happening, in the form of of a freakishly-tall and two-dimensionally skinny young man in a trucker’s cap, guitar slung high on his long chest, standing on the floorboards (no stage) bellowing blues dirges with seemingly no self consciousnesses. To his left was a violinist that would later achieve alt-co fame (Amanda Shires) and to his right a multi-instrumentalist that would later kick it with Old Crow Medicine Show. But we knew none of this at the time. Nor did we know the lanky dude singing was Steve Earle’s son. Once the noise of the joint fell to a tolerable level, it was easy to hear that this kid had IT. He sang of getting handjobs from prostitutes in movie theaters with great pathos, sadness, and wit. He sang of scoring drugs in Nashville ghettos, spinning gripping little narratives that never shied away from either the grit or the humor wrapped up in all the sordid details. He sang of a love devoid of platitudes, the real kind, the kind that can and will kill you. And he did it all while dressed like a 2008-Bedford Avenue denizen while kicking his heels jauntily against the scarred floorboards of a godforsaken backwater gig in the middle of an oppressive Texan summer.
We figured we would never hear from him again.
That night JTE told a story about the last time he had played that particular venue (Dear god, we thought. He’s actually played here more than once.) “I was getting fucked up then,” he told the crowd that wasn’t listening, because launching into a tale of how, fucked up indeed, he had waded out into the muddy river that cut through the town and nearly gone the fate of Jeff Buckley Jr. “But I have all that under control now,” he winked before launching into a song that transfixed us to stillness for almost three minutes, “Mama’s Eyes”.
A slight bow and he was gone.
It certainly wasn’t the last time we heard him, and he has left behind a string of truly unique and peculiarly effecting records that are finally getting their full due. And it certainly wasn’t the last time JTE got himself fucked up or wandered out into a muddy river.
Earlier this week he finally waded out too far.
Tina Romano and Daniel Falatko