Trains, rivers and blue-collar workers are all staples of American folk music. On his new record "Harlem River Blues," singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle takes those elements and places them in a modern, more urban context - that of his adopted home, New York City.

Our music critic and New Yorker by birth, Meredith Ochs, couldn't be happier that the landscape she grew up with is finally getting some folk treatment.

MEREDITH OCHS: Why should the Mississippi River have all the fun? Aren't the waters that flow around the island of Manhattan equally inspiring to songwriters? Justin Townes Earle seems to think so, although on the opening track of his new album, they're inspiring him to drown himself.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE (Singer): (Singing) Going uptown to the Harlem River to drown (Unintelligible).

OCHS: He borrows a page from singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, for whom he's named, saying goodbye to everyone in his life before he plunges into the Harlem River.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EARLE: (Singing) (Unintelligible) Going uptown to the Harlem River to drown.

OCHS: Like he does with New York's much overlooked waterways, Justin Townes Earle gives the city's subway system treatment usually reserved for cross-country freight trains. On this song, he borrows from two American music traditions, railroad ballads and labor songs.

Earle sings about the 6 train, not as an annoyed commuter, like most of us who ride it, but as a worker: a lifer stuck in the subway tunnels, away from sunlight, family and home. Like the great old songs that influenced him, Earle beautifully captures the feelings of monotony and discomfort of being a motorman on a train.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EARLE: (Singing) Well, it's cold in them tunnels today. Well, it's cold in them tunnels today. It's cold down in those tunnels today, mama, working for the MTA.

I run that 6 line train. I run the 6 line train. I run the 6 line train clear from Brooklyn Bridge to (unintelligible).

OCHS: Born in Nashville, Justin Townes Earle brought with him a treasure-trove of American music when he moved to New York: country, blues, soul, folk. He infuses it all with the highs and lows the city is known for: inspiration and desperation, energy and exhaustion, working too much and great temptation.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EARLE: (Singing) Lay in bed, listening to the water run. Ceiling's falling in, baby's dress is covered in dust. So I don't care what it costs. Baby, dust that old thing off. It's one more night in Brooklyn, baby we're getting lost.

OCHS: His new CD isn't a love letter to New York, but on it, he accomplishes what the troubadours who came before him from other parts of the country sought: music that defies geography and genre, in other words, no boundaries.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: That musical tour of New York City is from a new album from Justin Townes Earle called "Harlem River Blues." Our reviewer, Meredith Ochs, is a talk show host and DJ with Sirius XM satellite radio.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from