It’s late May in Nashville, and Justin Townes Earle is back in his hometown amid a short break from touring. For the first time in a long while, he finds himself walking the streets of Music Row – ground zero for a type of music he certainly doesn’t consider “country.”
Earle’s own songs possess a strong sense of location, and he appears to be an artist inspired by the spirit of a place. Music Row clearly isn’t one of them. “Should have waited to take my shower ‘cause now I just feel dirty!” he posts on his Twitter feed.
Justin’s father, Steve, developed his own allergy to Music Row in the mid-70s, where he moved in and out of a series of publishing deals, before finally releasing the critically-acclaimed Guitar Town in 1986. The elder Earle never considered Music Row to be a nurturing place for a songwriter. “Me and everybody like me … we have to take what we’re given,” he told American Songwriter in 2007. “Songwriters, especially the kind of songwriter I came to be, have to live in the margin.”
And live in the margin he did. In the late ‘80s, Earle released a handful of albums on MCA Records that moved from country to heartland rock to a sound he termed “heavy-metal bluegrass.” Today, Earle considers himself to be a folk singer more than anything else, a songwriter with the chops to make a living busking in the subway if push came to shove.
New York currently serves as the adopted home of both Earles. Steve pulled up stakes in Nashville several years ago and settled in Greenwich Village, paying tribute to the neighborhood’s folk music heritage on the album Washington Square Serenade.
For this issue’s photo shoot, Nashville’s Joshua Black Wilkins caught up with father and son on the boardwalk of Coney Island, that carny section of Brooklyn that was home to Woody Guthrie in the decade after World War II. Woody even wrote about the boardwalk, describing it as a place where “the prettiest of the maidulas, leave their leg prints in that sand/ Just beneath our love-soaked boardwalk, with the bravest of our lads.”
It was a fitting locale for our cover shoot, given that Woody is a guiding light for both songwriters. Steve paid direct homage to the legendary singer in the song “Christmas In Washington,” at once a prayer and call to arms for left-wing activism that also summons the ghost of Joe Hill, the songwriter and labor-activist for the Wobblies. “The Gulf Of Mexico,” off of Steve’s new album I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, also invokes Woody’s spirit. A modern day folk-ballad with a strong Irish lilt, the song traces the lives of three generations of workers who made their living on the water. The song’s denouement comes in the form of the oil spill, and we’ve seen a Gulf that has turned from blue to green to blood red.
Guthrie served as one of the touchstones for Justin’s album Harlem River Blues, an impressive song-cycle that imagines a cross-section of southern music through the prism of big city life in the 21st century.
“When Woody Guthrie was around, he wrote about what was around him,” the younger Earle tells AS. “He wrote about all these amazing new inventions, like the Grand Coulee Dam. He was taking an old form of music that he had learned in Pampa, Texas, and was translating it to a modern time.”
Earle’s most Guthrie-esque tune on Harlem River is “Wanderin,’” a roustabout tale that casts the protagonist as a sort of latter-day Huck Finn.
Now, my father was a traveler and my mama stayed at home
And she cried the day that he walked out and left us on our own
But now I’m older than he was when I was born and I don’t know
Which way is home so I’m wanderin’
In our story, the younger Earle says he’ll always consider himself “white trash from Middle Tennessee.” Buried beneath the wanderlust of his songs is the search for a home. Here’s hoping he keeps searching, at least for the sake of his songs.