Justin Townes Earle: 1982 - 2020

A scion of roots-music royalty, he nonetheless earned his own rightful acclaim as an incisive American songwriter.

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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.

Justin’s death undoubtedly leaves a chasm of songs forever unwritten. But to singer-songwriter fans unfamiliar with him, we offer a gateway to his discography on this tragic day. Here are five essential cuts by the late, great Justin Townes Earle.

Justin Townes Earle onstage in New York City in 2017. Credit: Al Pereira/Getty Images.

“Yuma”
Yuma EP (2007)

Justin cut this solo acoustic EP for the sake of having something on the merch table; his label, Bloodshot Records, later pressed it to vinyl “so that more folks will be able to hear a young songwriter honing his craft and getting his Guthrie on.” Much of Yuma sounds like a youngster on the coffeehouse circuit, but the title track shows he was way ahead of the curve. “Yuma” begins in medias res (“He woke up that morning and he called into work”) before the unnamed protagonist gets day-drunk, wipes out in front of the bar and steps off an overpass. Dry thwacks of steel-string remind us that this is real shit; as Tom Waits once warned, “There ain’t nothin’ funny about a drunk.”

“Mama’s Eyes”
Midnight at the Movies (2009)

Justin came up in the same roots-rock league as Jason Isbell, who backed him on Late Show With David Letterman in 2011. (“Justin bought the suit I got married in,” Isbell recalled upon the news of his death.) “Mama’s Eyes” predicts the startling economy of Isbell’s later masterworks like “Elephant.” It draws a thread between how he inherited his father’s mouth (“I’ve never known when to shut up”) and his mother’s moral compass (“I still see wrong from right”). He’d be caught between these poles for the rest of his life.

“Harlem River Blues”
Harlem River Blues (2010)

Soon after relocating to New York City in 2009, Justin made Harlem River Blues, which was both a leap forward and a cry for help — the title track is about diving off the FDR Bridge. “Dirty water gonna cover me over and I’m not gonna make a sound,” he booms like Johnny Cash. With Justin no longer with us, his steely resolve to be buried at sea smarts in a new way — especially with a gospel choir echoing the sentiment.

“Maybe a Moment”
Kids in the Street (2017)

Don’t think Justin’s songbook was all grim references to his struggles — he was often at his best when he added a pinch of power-pop to the formula. (Which was foreshadowed by his radiant 2009 cover of the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait.”) Kids in the Street — produced by Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis — was a step into optimism informed by being a newlywed and a new father. (“There’s definitely an uplifting aspect to this record in a lot of ways, because I’m feeling pretty positive,” he said at the time.) “Maybe a Moment,” an underdog song worthy of the ’Mats, marries plain-as-day storytelling to guitar jangle.

“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.” 

But the songs Justin did give us are worth celebrating — and they stand tall no matter who he’s related to.

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