Justin Townes Earle (January 4th, 1982-August 20th, 2020) was a singer, musician, entertainer and music historian. But the job title that meant the most to Earle was songwriter. Over the course of eight-full length albums and one E.P. that the Nashville-raised singer released during his lifetime, Earle wrote songs that explored the dark frailties and vulnerabilities of the human condition with an unrivaled honesty. It was Earle’s unsparing honesty that helped place the singer at the center of the next generation of artists surrounding the growing Americana and roots genres in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s.
When he released his first album, 2008’s The Good Life, Earle had a far simpler description for his music, “A singer-songwriter record,” he described it, “that draws on a lot of forms of Southern music.” Over the next dozen years, Earle drew on folk (2009’s Midnight at the Movies), gospel (2011’s Harlem River Blue), soul (2012’s Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now), and country-blues (2014’s Single Mothers and 2015’s Absent Fathers). On those records, Earle turned deeply personal themes that touched on his complicated relationships with his family and addiction into universal stories about fear, forgiveness, compassion, and redemption.
Earle was best known for his electric, unparalleled live shows, where he performed his fiery, unique blend of finger-picked guitar that was inspired by bluesmen like Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin Hopkins. During his 13 year solo career, he shared the stage with everyone from John Prine to Levon Helm to Gillian Welch. In 2009, Earle was named the Emerging Artist of the Year at the Americana Awards, and in 2011, the title track to his breakthrough album Harlem River Blues earned the distinction of Song of the Year. That year, Earle produced his first record, the trailblazing rockabilly singer Wanda Jackson’s Unfinished Business.
By that time period, Earle was poised to become a superstar, performing on large stages at festivals like Bonnaroo, regularly performing on the Letterman show, and appearing in magazines like GQ. From 2012 to 2019, he released five more albums, including 2016’s nostalgic Kids In The Street and his final album, 2019’s The Saint of Lost Causes. Earle’s last album was both his most vulnerable and most adventurous of his career, mixing socio-political character sketches with stories of personal darkness. “My daughter is probably the reason I stopped writing songs that were so inward and started looking out into the world,” he said in 2019. “I had to start worrying about the world because of her.”
After struggling with chemical dependency for over two decades, Earle died of an accidental overdose in August, 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, at the age of 39. But even if Earle’s life was cut tragically short, the remarkable body of work he left has only begun to be discovered and shared around the world.
By Jonathan Bernstein 2021