Singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle is one of the fresh faces coming to Kent this year for the 42nd go-round of one of the oldest ongoing festivals in the country. As in previous years, the festival is bringing in veteran performers to draw the crowds and new names to get us excited about folk's future. Seasoned musicians such as Nancy Griffith, Peter Rowan and Tony Rice are among this year's headliners. The Korean National University of Arts Music Ensemble brings some Asian flavor.
Earle will warm up for the Felice Brothers on Saturday, November 8 at the Kent Stage. If his name sounds familiar, yes, he is the son of Steve Earle, and yes, his middle name is an homage to Townes Van Zandt. His own sound harkens back to the honky-tonk of George Jones and Hank Williams, mixed with some tender ballads. He's crammed a lot of music and a lot of life experience into his 25 short years.
"I actually started with blues, like finger-style blues, people like Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin' Hopkins and Delta blues stuff," says Earle via cell phone while waiting in line for an emissions test for his car. "It was from that that I started getting into Woody Guthrie. I was pretty much old-timey and blues in my early 20s, and then I started to get way into honky-tonk. That's my love right now."
He includes storytellers such as Van Zandt, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, the Pogues and the Kinks in the ranks of his influences. "I've always been intrigued with people who have the full package," he says. "They write the songs, they write the melodies, the chords and everything. A good songwriter can inspire musicians to play well."
Earle talks candidly about his struggles with drug addiction, his relationship with his father (who is also a recovering addict) and their effect on his career. His appetite for hard drugs got him kicked out of his father's band at the age of 20.
"I started playing on and off with them when I was 17, and I was a wreck then," he says. "It just got to a point where nothing else mattered so much as getting high. It just took me hitting a wall. I had to change a lot of things in my life. I'm by no means an upright citizen, but I'm definitely not a gun-totin', crack-smokin' maniac anymore. Me and my father get along really well, and I love my father, but because of the relationship we've had most of my life, what he thinks of me is of very little consequence to me, because it never mattered when I was growing up. He wasn't there. But it took more than that. I literally died on a table in Vanderbilt Hospital.
I had OD'd plenty of times before, but my body was such a wreck that my respiratory system just shut down. I had to drive myself into the wall just like my dad did. It's not a family thing. It's just an addict thing."
Now he channels his energy into songwriting and developing a polished stage show that takes the audience back to the days of the Louvin Brothers, Buck Owens, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. "The thing with that kind of music is that it was so honest," says Earle. "There was no fancy poetry about it. If it's broke, it's broke, and you find something to rhyme broke with.
"One of the things that I love about the way we perform is that unless you're an anal-retentive douchebag, when you come to our shows it shuts off the outside world. We perform in a style that you don't hear anymore. I don't want my music to have anything to do with the real world. We all have our dark areas, and I've had lot of 'em. I'm still dealing with my own personal darkness. Fuck everybody else's. I gotta keep rollin'."
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