New Kid in Town: Rockabilly Artist Justin Townes Earle Moves From Nashville to Northern California

For good reason, Justin Townes Earle has had one thing on his mind lately: family. At 33-years-old, the folk-rock son of alt-country renegade Steve Earle has been seriously considering his musical legacy (as evidenced by his two autobiographical companion albums, 2014’s Single Mothers, and this year’s Absent Fathers). In 2013, he also married a Gyrotonic exercise instructor named Jenn Marie, whom he met through friends from the band Lucero. The couple recently relocated from Nashville to a rambling old California Victorian “in an undisclosed location about four hours north of San Francisco, way the fuck up in the growers’ triangle,” he said.

Earle’s musical career started unsteadily, curtailed by his dad’s estimable shadow. He released a stylistically-muddled EP called Yuma in 2007 that had streaks of folk, country, and blues. His debut album, The Good Life, dropped a year later, but it wasn’t until 2010, with the release of Harlem River Blues that he found his laconic, loping style. The twangy, R&B/folk/retro country hybrid even won Earle an Americana Music Award in the Song of the Year category.

Along with a musical ear, Earle also inherited an outlaw spirit from his father who left home when his son was two. By age 12, he, too, had begun abusing drugs and alcohol and was soon carrying around a pistol for protection. “I was a dangerous man,” he recalled of those tough times, which landed him in a few rehab centers. Now, as he prepares to turn 34 this January, he allows that he’s “at a point where I, uh, smoke a lot of reefer, but it’s not ruining my life.” He won’t say “never” when it comes to anything harder, he added. “But I did get the opportunity to live through something that most people don’t live through, and you see a side of life that most people do not walk away from.”
Along with his new focus on family, Earle’s writing habits have changed with his new situation. He has a spacious office/retreat in his new house, where he’s already started crafting an even more elaborate concept album to follow Mothers and Fathers, which he initially wanted to issue as a double-record set. It’s desolate where he lives, he said, and he misses daily visits to his neighborhood Nashville bodegas. “Getting in the car to go get cigarettes is just uncivilized,” he sighed.

His marriage has also shifted things in his life, presumably for the better. “If getting married doesn’t open up new realms of thought, then you’re probably not going to be married long,” reckoned Earle, who was raised by his mom Carol Ann Hunter Earle, who often worked three jobs just to keep the clan afloat. “You’ve got to worry about another person – and the effects of what you do – in a very real way,” he continued. “This is not some girlfriend that you met at a bar where it’s going to last six months and you have no expectations. You are now building a life of your own, and it’s a much more serious proposition. You can’t fall back and go live on your friend’s couch. That’s just not an option anymore.”

It’s too soon to say whether kids will be part of Earle’s future, but it’s a possibility. “That’s the thing,” he said. “We don’t always know.” In fact, he’s not even sure if he’d make a good parent, adding that “we think we’re going to be good parents [and] we think we know what’s best, but we don’t know shit!”

Justin Townes Earle plays with John Doe at 8 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 26, at Slim's. $23; www.slimspresents.com.

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