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Published: Monday, 5/13/2013

MUSIC

For Justin Townes Earle, having a tour bus is sure sign of success

BY WALTER TUNIS
LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER
Musician Justin Townes Earle performs onstage during 2013 Stagecoach: California’s Country Music Festival in April in Indio, California. Musician Justin Townes Earle performs onstage during 2013 Stagecoach: California’s Country Music Festival in April in Indio, California.
GETTY/FRAZER HARRISON Enlarge

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Touring artists often measure success in modest but practical terms.

The first reward, of course, is the work itself — preferably, a quantity sufficient to allow for touring in the first place.

But once the work starts coming in and an artistic identity and popularity begin to be established, the focus reverts to less glamorous rewards, like the means of transportation that literally keeps a tour in motion.

Take Justin Townes Earle, for instance. Since 2007, he has released five recordings of original songs that have increasingly fortified his musical identity among Americana audiences. That’s no meager feat, considering his father is veteran songsmith Steve Earle.

But as he hits the road this spring, the younger Earle, 31, is a happy man. Is it because his road band includes longtime Calexico guitarist Paul Niehaus? Could it be the Memphis soul-saturated songs from Earle’s 2012 album “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now”?

Well, the answer is partially yes in both cases. But Earle is also a chipper touring performer these days because the mounting success of his career has made him a higher class of road warrior.

In short, he has a tour bus now.

“Let me tell you, it was definitely a big change the day I went from driving the van most of the time to sitting on a bed in the back of the bus,” Earle said. “So we’re pretty comfortable these days. I couldn’t ask for more.”

An indie EP titled “Yuma” introduced Earle’s haunting country sound in 2007. “The Good Life,” which echoed more than a little of the swing and tenacity of giants like Hank Williams without sounding imitative, followed in 2008.

Then the grunt work started. “The Good Life” began a string of increasingly arresting albums for the Chicago indie label Bloodshot Records. Blues, Americana, and rural folk inspirations took their places in Earle’s songs.

But by the time “Nothing’s Gonna Change” came along, brassy Memphis soul was providing balance to Earle’s starker, darker songs.

“My songs are just kind of inspired by everyday life and everyday emotion,” Earle said. “It’s everywhere. I always carry around a little note pad. But on the songs I’ve been writing recently, I’ve been making a real effort to sit down to write — just as a practice. Before, I’ve been kind of a cocktail napkin writer for most of my life.

“I definitely had an idea of how I wanted the last record to sound. I’m way too controlling to not have an idea. When I’m writing, I start hearing production and other stuff. Plus, I’m good at surrounding myself with great people. As an untrained musician, I can get a little raw, a little off. So you’ve got to have people around you that kind of pull you back a little because they’re often out in front where everyone can still see you. And that makes an incredible difference. Any artist that thinks their every idea is brilliant is a (expletive) jackass.”

Perhaps the inevitable and most unavoidable question in surveying Earle’s songs surrounds the inspiration of his father. How big a role does Steve Earle play on a record by Justin Townes Earle?

The answer is, little if any. You certainly don’t hear it within the soul and blues influences that play out on “Nothing’s Gonna Change,” even though Dad is referenced specifically as the lyrics unfold during the album-opening “Am I That Lonely Tonight?”

But advice that father Earle and other Texas-bred songwriters offered helped shape the younger Earle’s writing.

“My father told me a few things about songwriting that stuck with me. He would say, ‘Stay honest’ and ‘Don’t write anything you don’t know.’ I really remember him and (veteran Lone Star songwriter) Guy Clark telling me, ‘When you write a song, make sure you want to play it for the next 30 years. You never know what will happen.’”

What will happen in the immediate future will be the recording of another album, which Earle said probably would expound on the soul charge of “Nothing’s Gonna Change,” with possible nods to the styles of Ray Charles and Ike Turner.

The plan is to have the record done and released by winter. But he also doesn’t plan to rush himself. The songs, he said, will surface in their own good time.

“Right now I’m in a good space. Mostly, for the past six years I’ve been in a good space to build. Plus, I’m only 31,” Earle said.

“So it’s a good time for me to be out working and doing all these things. But I still have a lot of songs in me. I don’t force them to come out.”



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