Lord knows what’s going on with Justin Townes Earle. The singer-songwriter appeared in an Indianapolis court on Tuesday to face charges for battery, public intoxication, and resisting law enforcement. Days after the alleged incident, some kind of blow-up at an Indiana concert in late September, Earle entered a rehab facility and postponed his remaining tour dates. Now, the tour is back on, resuming in his hometown of Nashville in late November and swinging through New York on December 18th at Webster Hall. But the honky-tonk troubadour’s rare gift for writing great songs is rivaled only by his gift for finding creative ways to end up in the proverbial ditch.
As for the larger mystery regarding the current state and future fate of this hell-bent, holy-voiced artist, your guess is as good as mine. Will he destroy himself with drugs like his father, the alt-country legend and notorious hellraiser Steve Earle? Will his reckless ways lead him to the premature death that befell his namesake, the revered songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who died at age 52? Will he face his demons and overcome his addictions, like his father after a stint in prison in 1994? Will he squander his God-given talent, like Jeff Bridges’ “Bad” Blake in Crazy Heart? Or will he sustain a body of work that follows in the proud tradition of his country-folk carpetbagger forebears: Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.
A little over 24 hours before he was arrested, I had the chance to speak with Earle about his new collection of gospel-tinged folk ballads, Harlem River Blues, in which this Southern string-plucker tries to make sense of his adopted home of New York City. Born in Nashville, Earle seems at once awed, repulsed, confused, inspired and ultimately welded heart-and-soul to the grittiest corners of the city.
Listening to your new album, I couldn’t help but think of that Bob Dylan song “Talkin’ New York.” Was Dylan somebody who inspired you to come to New York City and write old-timey folk songs about urban life? I actually think Woody Guthrie started that, writing hillbilly songs in New York City. But Dylan mastered the art of taking roots music and bringing it up to date.
Wasn’t it in New York in 1940 that Guthrie wrote his iconic song “This Land Is Your Land”? Yeah. It was also around that time he became close friends with a young Pete Seeger, who went onto popularize Woody’s songs (with the group the Weavers.) Woody would leave New York and then come back a number of times over his life, but he loved the city. As a matter of fact, he lived most of his later years on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island. When he died, his ashes were scattered off the coast there. He had a very deep connection to the city.
Is there a sense that every real folk troubadour has to eventually make his way to New York City? No. I don’t think everybody does. I don’t think everybody has the heart to do it. This city isn’t for everybody. It’s for true believers and true dreamers. You can’t have any want for any form of reality if you want to survive in New York City. It’s a completely alternate reality, unlike anything else on the face of this earth.
How so? There’s no place that speaks like New York City, there’s no place that moves like New York City, there’s no place that fights like New York City, there’s no place that fucks like New York City, there’s no place that drinks like New York City, there’s no place that does anything quite like New York City. I find it to be an incredible place.
So now that you’ve lived here for some time tell me your favorite spots? Café Mogador on St. Marks. It’s one of the old standards of the neighborhood. It’s been there since 1983. I’ve only met one person in my life who didn’t like it, and his taste is questionable, anyway.
What about your favorite watering hole? I like the 11th Street Bar. That’s my spot. I also like to go sometimes to Drop-Off Service. It’s a decent bar. Then there’s the International. That place is fuckin’ great if you have a really bad hangover. It’s dark, dirty and they have a back patio where you can have a cigarette. When I lived in Brooklyn, all my friends lived in the East Village. I lived a block away from Brownsville. So I lived in the murder capital of the Northeast. You didn’t go out. There was nothing in the neighborhood worth going to.
Any favorite places to shop for clothes? I like Uniqlo, a Japanese department store in Soho. It’s like a ten times better American Apparel.
Where else? Billy Reid, which is in the back of the old Bowery Lane Theatre on Bond Street. Reid is an amazing designer from Florence, Alabama. It’s near the historic Muscle Shoals studio. He won GQ’s magazine’s “Best New Designer” award at Fashion Week.
How did you discover him? Billy’s been a friend of mine for a while. It was a natural marriage. I wear suits every night on stage and he likes to dress musicians. But he never had anybody who would wear the complete suit: bow-tie, suspenders and all.
But you were up for it. Yeah. He made me a red-velvet tuxedo for last year’s American Music Awards. (Ed. Note: That night, Justin won AMA’s New & Emerging Artist of the Year.)
So does he always dress you now? I don’t let anybody dress me. I’m way too finicky about that kind of thing. I’m also pretty goddamn good at picking out the right outfit. Everything I wear on stage, we design together.
Where did you pick up your cool sense of style? I started touring when I was fourteen. By the time I was seventeen, I had slept with over 100 women and toured every country in the world. So, I get around. (Ed. Note: Earle was named one of GQ‘s 25 most stylish men in the world.)
Were you traveling around with your dad? I’m not some groupie. I had my own band.
At fourteen? Sam Cooke was fifteen when he joined The Highway G.Q.’s and sang in the hit group The Soul Stirrers before he was twenty. I started playing guitar when I was twelve.
When did you sign your first record contract? I had my first publishing deal when I was seventeen. I got my first record deal when I was eighteen. That’s how this business works. Start young or you never get in there.
Sounds like you did more hard living before you were eighteen than most people do in a lifetime? Well, I was in bands that did lot of drugs and drank a lot.
Did your dad get you into music? My dad had very little role in anything in my life. Period. I barely even knew him until adulthood.
You have a song on Harlem River Blues called “Workin’ for the MTA”. What’s your opinion of the recent fare hikes and service cuts? One of the regulars at my local bar is the head of financing for the MTA and he tells me a lot of strange, strange things. And he says the hikes have to do with them finishing the Second Avenue Subway line.
The recession doesn’t help. The MTA is losing its asshole right now. Less people are using it. I remember coming up here thirteen years ago and it didn’t matter what time a day you got on that fuckin’ train, it would be slammed. Nowadays, you can pretty much always get a seat.
Does New York feel like home yet? Oh, for sure. You move to Nashville from somewhere else, you’ll never be a Nashvillian. That’s just the way it is. Nashville doesn’t work that way. But you stay in New York, you become a New Yorker. That’s what it’s about. It’s about immigrants. It’s about people coming from all over the place to find whatever it is they’re looking for in the greatest city on earth. So I consider myself 100% a New Yorker.
How would you describe what the new songs say about your relationship with New York City? I still run around a lot. I’m still a little bit lost. It’s not really a love letter to the city but for the first time in my life I don’t like to be on the road as much. I want to be home. I’ve never had that feeling in my life.
When did you start feeling like that? Last year. As soon as I moved into Manhattan. That was right before the tour for Midnight at the Movies. When I lived out in Crown Heights, I could give a fuck. I was fine being on the road all the time. But now that I’m the East Village, I just don’t want to leave. As far as I’m concerned, 11th street is the greatest place in the world.
Found any good Southern food in the city? No. Everybody tells me, go here, check this place out, it’s great. You know Mama’s Food Shop down on 3rd Street? Now, Mama’s is good food. But meatloaf is not wrapped in fuckin’ bacon. And green beans don’t have sea salt on them. That ain’t Southern food.
How about their fried chicken? You know what, the best fried chicken I’ve found in the city is The Redhead on East 13th Street. It’s good fried chicken but it still ain’t Southern fried chicken.
What’s your favorite view of the city? Every time I have the horrible experience of flying in or out of fuckin’ JFK, when the car takes me back into the city, right before we get on the Williamsburg Bridge and I see lower Manhattan in all its glory. I just feel better as soon as I see it and as soon as I’m over that bridge I’m at ease.
You had an accident where you badly injured your hand. Yeah, I was moving and there will piles of clothes everywhere and I tripped and landed on some dishes. I had to get nineteen stitches.
Was it hard not to be able to play the guitar for the first time since you were twelve? It was actually kind of relaxing. I didn’t want to cancel any dates but…
Hello? Sorry. We’re stopping for food at a Steak ‘n Shake. Anyway, they were trying to get me to hire a guitar player to go out there with me and I would just stand there on stage and sing. I said, listen, I’m not fuckin’ Bono.