Justin Townes Earle performs in the U.K. in 2011. Credit: Marc Marnie/Redferns.
As the son of the beloved songwriter Steve Earle, Justin Townes Earle had no choice but to bare everything in his writing. “My life is already out there,” he told the online magazine Smile Politely in 2009. “It’s in three different books. There are freaks out there that are my dad’s fans who know more about me than I do.” Growing up, Justin didn’t see much of his father, mostly spending time with his mother, Carol Ann. But as his discography bears out, he inherited his old man’s considerable talent and, possibly, his destructive appetites.
For a while, it seemed like the latter might define him. As a teenager, he moved in with Steve and began abusing drugs, and by the time he was legally old enough to drink, a two-week binge almost claimed his life. During an extended period of sobriety, he wrote songs — “Yuma,” “Hard Livin’,” “Mama’s Eyes” — as jolting as a frying pan on tile. Two days after his acclaimed 2010 album Harlem River Blues was released, he was arrested after a drunken post-show brawl. The first line on that album: “Lord, I’m going uptown/To the Harlem River to drown.”
We recently lost Justin Townes Earle, as announced on his Facebook page and confirmed to the New York Times. He was only 38, and the cause, location and exact date has not yet been announced, although he was a resident of Portland, Oregon. “So many of you have relied on his music and lyrics over the years,” his family wrote in a statement accompanied by a verse from his ballad “Looking for a Place to Land.” “[W]e hope that his music will continue to guide you on your journeys.”
The news was met with tributes by fellow Americana luminaries like Jason Isbell, who tweeted, “[I] had a lot of good times and made a lot of good music with JTE”; Margo Price, who called him “always kind to me and … gone too soon”; and Samantha Crain, who deemed him “a tremendous songwriter” who “understood struggle [and] understood joy … I saw him at the peaks and valleys of both.”
Justin Townes Earle was born in Nashville in 1982. His middle name was a nod to the folk legend Townes Van Zandt, with whom Steve had engaged in a litany of drug-, alcohol- and gun-fueled incidents and for whom he wrote “Fort Worth Blues” in tribute upon Van Zandt’s 1997 death. After stints in ragtime and cowpunk bands, he followed in Steve’s footsteps as a singer-songwriter, releasing eight albums and garnering a cult following in his own right.
Yuma EP (2007)
Midnight at the Movies (2009)
“Harlem River Blues”
Harlem River Blues (2010)
“Maybe a Moment”
Kids in the Street (2017)
“Ahi Esta Mi Nina”
The Saint of Lost Causes (2019)
Justin’s beguiling final album, The Saint of Lost Causes, is a brooding gem, and “Ahi Esta Mi Nina,” about a Cuban man attempting to reconcile with his New York daughter, shows his knack for character study was approaching Randy Newman depths. “I, and so many others, was looking forward to a long career of compelling music, to watching a craftsman ply his trade at a higher and higher level,” Rob Miller, the cofounder of Bloodshot Records, said in an Instagram post. “We are so saddened at the music we will now never get to hear.”