Singer-Songwriter Justin Townes Earle Dies At 38 Acclaimed singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle has died at age 38. His Facebook page announced his death Sunday, with no other details provided.
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Singer-Songwriter Justin Townes Earle Dies At 38

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Singer-Songwriter Justin Townes Earle Dies At 38

Singer-Songwriter Justin Townes Earle Dies At 38

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/905536282/905536283" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Acclaimed singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle has died at the age of 38. He's the son of alt-country star Steve Earle who earned critical acclaim of his own and multiple awards despite struggles with addiction. NPR's Neda Ulaby has our remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: When Justin Townes Earle was born in Nashville, his dad made sure to have a jar of Texas dirt in the room. He wanted to bind the baby to his roots. But the younger Earle's sense of dislocation and unease permeated his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE MORE NIGHT IN BROOKLYN")

JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE: (Singing) Tired of laying in bed, listening to the water run. Ceiling's falling in, baby's dress is covered in dust.

ULABY: Justin Townes Earle was the firstborn son of a famous musician who left his family when the boy was only 2. In 2017, Steve Earle told the WXPN show "World Cafe" he had no doubts back then about choosing the unstable touring life of the musician over fatherhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE EARLE: Justin knows that I was never going to quit. He was raised on government cheese and food stamps until he was 3. It's hard to live with somebody that does this because in and of itself, making art is something that's self-involved.

ULABY: Steve Earle was part of a rebellious country scene that included his friend, musician Townes Van Zandt, after whom Justin Townes Earle was named. Steve Earle was not an easy act to follow, but his son pulled it off.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE SONG, "HARLEM RIVER BLUES")

ULABY: Justin Townes Earle recorded eight albums of his own. In 2009, he was named the emerging artist of the year at the Americana Music Association's annual awards. Two years later, his "Harlem River Blues" won song of the year. It's about a musician taking his own life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARLEM RIVER BLUES")

J EARLE: (Singing) Lord, I'm going uptown to the Harlem River to drown. Dirty water going to cover me over, and I'm not going to make a sound.

ULABY: Earle's own addiction started taking hold when he was a teenager. But he told NPR in 2008 it was not about rebellion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

J EARLE: 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've become an accountant, or I could've become a Republican. That would have really pissed him off.

ULABY: Unlike his father, Justin Townes Earle did not write political music - not overtly, anyway. He drew effortlessly from roots, country, blues and, as he told WXPN's "World Cafe" in 2017, jazz singer Billie Holiday, for whom he wrote this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE GARDENIAS")

J EARLE: (Singing) Yeah, 'cause long ago she left her heart there when she could not stop the bleeding. White dress, white shoes, white gardenias.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J EARLE: Billie Holiday has had a huge effect on the way that I sing - her showing the world that you don't have to have this incredible range to be an amazing singer. You just have to find your own thing.

ULABY: In some ways, Earle followed his idol's worst habits. Holiday died at age 44 after years of addiction to alcohol and drugs, which, Earle told NPR, had already taken a toll on him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

J EARLE: I pretty much crippled my insides. I mean, I 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.

ULABY: Five years and several relapses later, Earle was a new dad himself, telling WXPN he thought this time he was clean for good.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J EARLE: I realized that last time around there's nothing cool about dying after 30. If you die after 30, you should've known better at that point.

ULABY: Justin Townes Earle was 38 years old when his family posted news of his death last night on social media.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SAINT OF LOST CAUSES")

J EARLE: (Singing) Ain't nobody going back. It takes a whole lot of hurt.

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