Justin Townes Earle Dead at 38
“It is with tremendous sadness that we inform you of the passing of our son, husband, father and friend Justin,” a post on Earle’s Instagram page read. “So many of you have relied on his music and lyrics over the years and we hope that his music will continue to guide you on your journeys. You will be missed dearly Justin.”
Earle, a tall and gangly figure with a from-another-time aesthetic, was a captivating presence onstage, where he’d sometimes address the crowd in a carnival barker style. But it was his albums, like 2010’s soulful Harlem River Blues, 2017’s introspective Kids in the Street, and last year’s shuffling, ominous The Saint of Lost Causes that best summed up his man-out-of-time appeal. A favorite in Americana music circles, he was named Emerging Act of the Year at the 2009 American Honors & Awards, and nominated as Artist of the Year in 2012.
Born January 4th, 1982, Earle was the son of the country-rocker Steve Earle, who named him after his friend, the songwriter Townes Van Zandt. His mother, Carol Ann Hunter, never cared for the name, Earle told Rolling Stone last year.
“My mother hated Townes Van Zandt. My first name was supposed to be Townes, but my mother would not have it,” he said. “She hated him because of the trouble that Dad and him got into, but she still played his music.”
Earle first came on the scene with the 2007 EP Yuma, and would release a string of albums on the Bloodshot Records label. The title track to his 2010 project for the label, Harlem River Blues, won Song of the Year at the 2011 Americana Honors. He performed the song during an appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman, with Jason Isbell backing him up on guitar.
In 2017, Earle began working with New West Records, who released his last two albums, starting with the LP Kids in the Street.
Like his father, Earle battled drugs and alcohol during his career. But as he told Chris Shiflett on the Walking the Floor podcast in 2017, he was sober when he began making records. “I got all my craziness out of the way as a coffeehouse musician and a roadie,” he said.
Along with his solo work, Earle produced Wanda Jackson, marking his first time producing another artist. At Earle’s suggestion, the rockabilly legend revisited her classic, raucous Sixties sound for 2012’s Unfinished Business.
Earle, who was born and raised in Nashville, recalled his first time performing with his father, when he was just 17.
“Me and my dad played a few Doc Watson songs,” he told Rolling Stone. “We’re Earles, we’re arrogant, and we always feel good about what we do, but it was intimidating. I’ll tell you, the second time we played together, I had to play with him and Guy Clark at MerleFest, in front of Doc Watson. It scared the shit out of me.”
Earle was on the road in support of Saint of Lost Causes up until the pandemic struck in March.