« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

John Lamb, Published June 18 2009

What’s in a name?

Never one to keep his opinion to himself, singer/songwriter Steve Earle once infamously claimed, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”

Presumably Earle has never been invited to casa de Dylan to perform such a feat. However, the “Hardcore Troubadour” did pay homage to Van Zandt in a more significant way by naming his first child Justin Townes Earle.

Now 27, the younger Earle is making a name for himself as a singer/songwriter. He performs tonight at the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre with Australian country singer/guitarists Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson.

Justin has been touring regularly since his third disc, “Midnight at the Movies,” came out in early March. His time on the road included a stint last weekend at Bonnaroo, the big music festival in Manchester, Tenn., that packed in 75,000 fans.

When he’s not playing, the young singer is either shaking hands in the crowd or chatting up reporters. No matter who he talks to, the main topic of conversation is always the men after whom he’s named.

“I got into a business that was theirs before it was mine,” he says during a rare day off in Madison, Wis., on Tuesday. “I’m always going to be mentioned in the same breath as them because I’ve got the same name, and if I’m going to get upset by that, then I’ve got a long, hard upsetting life ahead of me. ... The ability I’ve got to do what I do comes from my blood line.”

Besides, the name comes with cachet.

“My name is Justin Townes Earle. Who’s not going to pay attention when they hear it,” he says. “The only difference is, when you have a name like mine, when you come out, you better not make bad records. You better make sure you come correct because people are going to rip you to pieces. You’re under the magnifying glass.”

While there may be hints of the father in the son’s music, Justin’s style of Americana and roots is smoother than his father’s grittier delivery.

Oddly enough, his parental musical influence that sticks out most on “Midnight” is found in a cover of The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait,” one of the first groups he remembers hearing growing up.

“In 1985, 1986, if you had parents that were remotely hip, you had a Replacements record in your house, most likely. And my mom was one of those,” he says.

These days, he tries to keep some distance between his career and his father’s. Justin used to play a Van Zandt cover in his set, but pulled it now that Steve Earle is touring behind his own collection of Van Zandt covers, “Townes.” (The father and son paired on “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold.”)

“It’s really difficult to keep a balance in the press and everywhere else between, ‘This is my father and this is me.’ ” Justin says. “You don’t want to get the lines crossed.”

Justin’s first recording was the rocking guitar on his dad’s defiant “Here I Am,” off 1997’s “El Corazon.” He played guitar on that tour, which came to Fargo the following summer. That period is rather hazy, he explains, calling it, “Many a wild night ago.”

When asked what he learned from his namesakes, Justin’s answer is immediate.

“That drunks aren’t cool. Drunks and drug addicts aren’t cool. It’s bull. It’s the myth and the lie,” he says.

Even after seeing his father’s heroin addiction lead to jail time and Van Zandt’s death at 53 from complications related to substance abuse, Justin had to learn this lesson the hard way.

A heroin and cocaine addict, he collapsed five years ago, resulting in a long hospital stay.

“I was 22 and had the liver of a 65-year-old man and the lungs of an 80-year-old man,” he recalls.

When doctors told him his lifestyle would only give him another year at the max, the younger Earle knew it was time to change.

“It was like I was a cancer patient, but I had the option to not die, so I took it,” he says.

His life since was summed up by the title of his breakthrough 2008 disc, “The Good Life.” In May “Midnight” was nominated for the Americana Music Association for album of the year. (Chambers and Nicholson were nominated for best song for “Rattlin’ Bones” and best duo.)

After Townes Van Zandt died, Steve Earle wrote the song “Ft. Worth Blues” about remembering his old friend wherever he traveled.

Now that Justin is following in both his predecessors’ footsteps, he finds recollections wherever he goes.

“You always hear stories. Somebody wants to tell you about some wild time in 1987. It’s pretty interesting,” he says with a laugh. “I know where the bodies are buried, you know. Half the time I hear them I’m like, ‘That’s total bull because I know both of those men and they’re not capable of that.’ ”

If you go


Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533