On Sunday evening, news broke that Justin Townes Earle—singer, songwriter, and son of alt country legend and The Wire utility man Steve Earle—passed away at age 38.
There was worse news reported on Sunday. And you can’t really say that JTE’s passing was unexpected—the man was named for Townes Van Zandt after all. But the world is a little bit darker today because a man who made things a bit brighter with his music is gone too soon.
Mourning the death of an artist, especially one as untimely as JTE’s, often feels like an exercise in reflecting on what they meant to us. For me, Earle’s 2012 album Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now was one of the most impactful records I’ve ever heard by someone in our generation.
In 2012, I was interning at Bloodshot Records, an alt-country record label with an otherworldly lineup of musicians who have come through its doors. This was not a company that expected to have interns, and I didn’t have much ambition for the job other than to say I got to do something cool and music adjacent (see the first sentence in this paragraph). So I ended up taking two trains and a bus every Tuesday afternoon in 2012 so that I could listen to Fresh Air and stuff media mail envelopes with records that would go out to buyers. That’s how I came across JTE: temporarily assuming title of a copy of Nothing’s Gonna Change from Bloodshot’s stack of CDs it sent out to college radio stations.
The album sideswiped me. It is deceptively simple: 10 songs clocking in at 30 minutes. There’s so much space between the instruments in the mix, which allows you to practically hear JTE’s fingerprints sliding over the strings of his guitar. The drums sit comfortably in the backbeat, and every song has these beautiful, subtle horn arrangements that come in as cool as a breeze off the river on a humid Memphis night. Earle’s lyrics were vague enough to feel applicable to my own life: songs about quick calls home and half-hearted, self-serving apologies. All this is to say that the album sounded particularly good walking around campus at night, sneaking furtive, self-destructive Marlboro drags and feeling things.
One of my pinnacle achievements in music (of which there are few) was playing with my band in the side lounge of the same venue where JTE was headlining. It was at a time when my performing dreams were still very much alive, and an artist like Earle made me think they were attainable. But it takes hard work to make simple songs sound as beautiful as he did. It’s easy for any asshole with a drinking problem to pick up a guitar. It’s so much harder to create something as emotionally resonant as Justin Townes Earle did.
It’s fucked up that he’s gone so soon. And it’s fucked up that my way of remembering him is to think of what he meant to me, purely in the context of myself, and not to think of what his life was like on its own.
It’s also notable how JTE shows just how much of our fathers we carry in ourselves. How our dads give us our name (“Townes” and “Earle” for Justin, as if one whiskey-and-cocaine-drenched chain wasn’t heavy enough to carry) and then give us the tools to deal with it, for better or for worse. How we take the good and bad from them in equal parts.
For Justin, he built on his dad’s approach to songwriting—one that fused a traditional guitar technique and country feel onto modern subject matter—in a way that developed his own reputation rather than sit in father’s shadow. I know I’d rather listen to just about any JTE album than a Steve Earle record. I mean, just listen to that percussive way he fingerpicks his guitar here (my all-time favorite Bruce Springsteen cover) in a manner that’s clothed in decades of tradition but also 100% original.
But he also got the bad side of his two namesakes. The cocaine, the pills, the drinking, and the questionable facial hair. You don’t need to live like the people JTE wrote about to write such melancholy and honest songs as he did. But he tried.
When you lay down to sleep that’s when it’ll hurt the most
When you wake up alone and still smell my smoke
Some stars are tragic, and we love them for it. JTE wore his tragedy in the tattoos on his forearm and in the grooves of his music. RIP to a real one.