Justin Townes Earle: Sobering Up to Music The Nashville singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle is trying to make his own career in music. But it comes with some history: His father is the outspoken Steve Earle, and at 25, Justin has already fought off a powerful drug habit that nearly killed him.
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Justin Townes Earle: Sobering Up to Music

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Justin Townes Earle: Sobering Up to Music

Justin Townes Earle: Sobering Up to Music

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The musician Justin Townes Earle was addicted to drugs, until the day a friend dragged him to the hospital.

Mr. JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE (Musician): I suffered respiratory failure after being awake for 14 days. I've always known that, like, if you walk into the emergency room, and first off, they don't make you wait - like they go, oh God, you come here and they grab you, you know you're in trouble. And then you know you're in double trouble when the scissors come out and they start cutting your clothes off.

INSKEEP: Earle says he's been clean four years now. And when he brought his guitar by our studios, the young musician wore a denim work shirt and signs of an eventful life.

Is the tattoo on your arm from before or after this experience that got you clean?

Mr. EARLE: Which one?

INSKEEP: It was early in the morning - early for a musician, anyway. Just hours before, he'd been performing the song that he prepared to play for us.

Mr. EARLE: I was thinking about taking all my songs down a half a step this morning. So maybe if I can (unintelligible) for my deeper baritone this morning.

INSKEEP: And he started a tune that helps you get deeper into Earle's story. He plays guitar without a pick, flicking his fingers across the strings like a man shaking water off his hand.

Justin Townes Earle carries the names of two acclaimed songwriters: Townes Van Zandt and Earle's own father, Steve.

This song describes a man with a chaotic life. It took Earle years to get it recorded, because he had a chaotic life.

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't Glad I'm Leaving")

Mr. EARLE: (Singing) Well, I take my time in coming, take my time in leaving. If you ask me where I'm going, tell you ain't (unintelligible). You know I can never be what you need. If you ain't glad I'm leaving, girl, you know you oughta be, baby, baby. Yeah, 'cause I lie, cheat and gamble, and I steal from any man, well, from Georgia to Los Angeles, Texas up to Maine. I'm a wanted man. Is that the kind of life you wanna lead? If you ain't glad I'm leaving, girl, you know you oughta be.

INSKEEP: Justin Townes Earle.

I don't want to assume that when you sing in the first person, you're singing about yourself, but are you trying to tell us something about yourself with that song?

Mr. EARLE: At the time that I wrote it, I was trying to tell everybody something about myself. I do advertise it at shows as a warning, but then again, it is a performance in the show.

INSKEEP: What time did you write it?

Mr. EARLE: I was 15 or 16 years old when I wrote that song, you know.

INSKEEP: Well, let's mention what was happening with your father. It's been very public he had drug abuse problems. He was arrested for drug-related crimes. He spent some time in prison. Were you, in a sense, acting out, then, if you were a problem kid?

Mr. EARLE: I don't know if, in my family, you could call it acting out. I think it was kind of playing along with the game. I mean, I didn't do anything differently than what my father was doing. I mean, it's a really hard family to rebel in. I could have become an accountant. Or I could have become a Republican. That would have really pissed him off, you know.

(Soundbite of laugher)

INSKEEP: He's politically active, and much more on the leftward side of things.

Mr. EARLE: Yes, he is.

INSKEEP: Would this be a period when you were also getting involved with drugs?

Mr. EARLE: Yeah. Yeah. I'd already been involved in them.

INSKEEP: Was there a period where your father was trying to wag his finger at you and say you shouldn't do that? I don't want you involved in these things.

Mr. EARLE: Oh, yeah. My dad's a big finger-wagger. He's full of advice. But back then, you know, I was just like any teenager. There's no such thing as a teenager that listens to a single word their father says.

INSKEEP: Because we're talking here about people giving advice, I wonder if you could play a song of yours in which I think the narrator is trying to give advice, but trying to say he's not giving any advice - "Who Am I to Say."

Mr. EARLE: Yeah, I can do that.

(Soundbite of song, "Who Am I to Say")

(Singing) Well, now, who am I say, if all I know is what I heard? And with the things some people say, you can never be too sure. So you take your pills and poison, drink yourself to death, give yourself away until you ain't got nothing left. 'Cause who am I to say that there's anything with that? Ah, but why do you call at such hours every time, saying I don't need no money, I've just been thinking of you tonight? Ah, but who am I to say that it wasn't for the better, girl? Who am I to say, now?

INSKEEP: Justin Townes Earle.

You must've realized as a very young man, hey, I've got some talent here, and like it or not, I've got some connections. I could really make something of myself, or I could waste my life.

Mr. EARLE: Well, it was a friend of mine, actually, named Scotty Melton, who I met at a party at this house that I'd been living at for a while with a bunch of guys. And Scotty was nowhere near his, like, father - like he never tried to stop me from doing anything. But as far as songwriting goes and direction with my work, he was giving me all the same advice that my father gave me. The only difference was that I listened to Scotty.

INSKEEP: Oh, because it's so easy to ignore the advice of your loved ones, even if it's good advice.

Mr. EARLE: Well, exactly. And it's a lot easier for anybody to listen to somebody who you can get high with or I could have a drink with, you know. And that wasn't going to happen with my father.

INSKEEP: What then, finally, forced the decision?

Mr. EARLE: Well, it was - my body finally forced me to make a change. I mean, I pretty much crippled my insides. I mean, I had the liver of a - you know, I still do have the liver of a 60-year-old alcoholic, you know. And it's - I wouldn't say that I'm stable, but I know that I'm very happy and comfortable living without the use of drugs now, you know. And I've been lucky that I haven't had - I mean, I haven't had an urge to get high or drink. And I'm just hoping that that stays away.

INSKEEP: That's Justin Townes Earle. His new album is "The Good Life." You can hear how he was inspired by his grandfather and the Civil War at npr.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

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