For a guy who’s already crammed five albums, an EP, a songwriting reputation that stands on its own (completely independent from that of his father Steve Earle) and a lifetime’s worth of personal turmoil into just 32 years, Justin Townes Earle is marking some significant firsts.
Single Mothers is his engrossing debut on the indie rock label Vagrant. Plus, before now, he’d never stayed out of his own album cover photo or gone through an album promotional cycle as a married man. But the more things change, the more Earle’s punchy, from-the-hip way of talking about his priorities, prerogatives and perspectives stays the same.
CMT Edge: You said you were going for a different kind of country R&B sound on this new album and that you purposefully looked outside Nashville for players — to steel guitarist Paul Niehaus and the rhythm section of the band Centro-matic. Was the idea that you wanted to escape the realm of sounding like a student of a particular era or music scene?
Earle: To me, country music, I just don’t see it existing anymore, except for a few people that are way underground and not making a lot of money these days. The term has broadened, just like Americana has, just like rock ‘n’ roll has, to an unrecognizable point.
My records are always a little bit different, but this one was definitely a good bit different because what I’ve attempted to do is show that there is absolutely no difference between country and R&B — early R&B, I mean. The only difference is the tone you sing, the movements you make. They’re all learned in the church. They’re played on a 12-bar blues most of the time. I think where that connection started separating is where country music started going wrong for me.
In the context of roots music, when artists work with elements of R&B or blues, it often comes with a really robust vocal attack. The last time I interviewed you, you told me throat difficulties had led you to take a softer approach to singing. On this new album, too, your singing’s softer, and you’re playing with the rhythms of your phrasing. What does R&B singing mean for you?
I loved country singing. Nothing will ever steer me away from believing that Webb Pierce is one of the best country singers that ever lived. I mean, I own a ring that belonged to him that’s platinum and diamonds. I had to have it when I found it. …You hear that intro into [Pierce’s] “There Stands the Glass,” the way that [his singing] climbs up like that sounds very similar to me, in a different octave, to something that Otis Redding would do, you know? …
When Ray Charles made Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, it was not a stretch for him. It came out as natural as it could possibly be. I think that that’s one of the most important things.
There’s too much forcefulness in the music industry now, and it’s spread into the Americana thing. They have this one sound that I hear all the time. … There’s no definition anymore between these forms of music that were once so distinct, even though they had many, many ties to each other.
How do your feelings about the overlapping qualities of R&B and country singing come through in what you’re doing vocally?
I think that my vocal approach starts, especially on this record, with Billie Holiday, the late timing, coming in vocally at the kind of last minute that you can to not completely fuck it up. The new way that I found to sing is a much softer way to sing because I’m finally singing from my guts and not from my throat. … It’s like using a low-wattage amp. You’re able to get a lot more push from your voice when you just relax your throat and come from your stomach.
Speaking of feel, you’ve been recognized for a distinctive, rhythmic, fingerstyle approach on guitar, and you’ve said clawhammer banjo playing was a source of inspiration. When did you develop your playing style?
I started doing it when I was about 16 years old because I was living with two singer-songwriters in their early 20s. … They were both great players. My friend Willie was an amazing chicken pickin’ guitar player. My friend Scotty was an incredible flatpicker and an amazing songwriter. So I needed to come up with something that could make as much noise as they did.
It became this kind of [thing where you] take the Ray Price shuffle and then drop it behind the beat as much as you can. I think that’s the reason I felt like I had to go out of Nashville for these players.
Paul Niehaus has played with me for years, and he’s never played a country session. So the Nashville sound has never been part of his thinking whatsoever. Same thing with the Centro-matic guys — Mark Hedman and Matt Pence. It’s like you’re never going to get a traditional country shuffle out of those boys even though they know how to do it. You’re gonna get something a lot weirder that’s based on it.
You’ve written a number of songs about the torn-up state people are in after an intense relationship falls apart. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard you spend so much time in one song cycle examining the emotional toll of heartache. How did that perspective find its way into your writing?
I think this record is definitely a more personal record. You know, I was a junkie for years. Not the last year of my life, but the year before was fucking more miserable than any year I was a junkie. I’d turned 30, I’d fucked up [relationships]. Well, of course, I didn’t feel like I’d fucked up all of them. It was just all my relationships had failed. I’d kind of lost faith in females as people to count on. But I was just bad at choosing them, that’s for sure.
The smartest thing I’ve ever done in my life is marry my wife. That definitely changed my mind. It wasn’t just women. I was convinced that all people were bad at that point. There was just no heart left in this world. … There’s a little bit more of me than most of my records. This was one of things that for the first time in my life was not an exercise in futility to get these things out.
I wouldn’t expect your songs to suddenly give off a married vibe. But were these written before or after you got married?
Well, the whole record was actually written before we got married. … I’m 32 years old, and life has not been the funnest thing, and I think it was just a lack of having somebody to count on. …[Having that] just feels much different than anything else. But you’re not gonna get some “Walkin’ on Sunshine” shit from me because there’s been way more years of being so fucked up in so many ways and not happy.