From May/June 2019 Editor’s Note of American Songwriter.
“When I listen to other songwriters, I’ve never found anything more powerful than when you don’t have to use every little word in the English language. It has to be sparse.”
That’s Justin Townes Earle, the subject of this issue’s cover story, talking to American Songwriter back in 2014, shortly before the release of the album Single Mothers. Later this month, Earle returns to the mix with his eighth full-length studio effort The Saint Of Lost Causes, which is being released on New West Records. For this collection, the 37-year-old Nashville native continues to employ considerable economy in his lyrical approach. Thematically, the album finds Earle working with big-picture, topical subject matter, turning his eye on America’s social challenges à la one of his songwriting heroes, Woody Guthrie.
This pivot toward the macro marks something of a shift for Earle, whose subject matter has typically favored a more first-person, autobiographical approach. Yet Earle insists the new album is “social” and not “political” in nature. The songs address complicated subjects that are beyond any one person’s power to affect, but have an impact upon all of us individually — issues of gentrification, the opioid epidemic, among others, but make no mistake, nothing in this work drifts toward coffeehouse folk. Like many of the works in his catalog, these songs are dressed up in various elements of southern roots music: boogie-woogie blues, noirish country, Memphis rock and roll.
One of the album’s more affecting numbers, “Over Alameda,” comes about halfway through the album. It’s a ballad set in South Central Los Angeles that tells a story of generational poverty, de facto segregation, and deindustrialization that culminates with a subtle suggestion of the causes of gang life. A country folk-sounding number with ghostly pedal steel, the lyrics are sparse, and decades of American history and economics are detailed with a handful of simple verses about a family.
Mama would tell me of her hopes
What she hoped to leave behind
What she thought she would find out in California
She’d talk about Mississippi
Still don’t know how it is
Any place can be worse than this
It’s hard to believe
The song takes its place in the long line of “going-to-California” folk songs. The song’s speaker is a 19-year-old boy living in the Jordan Downs Housing Project in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. We understand that his mother had moved from the Mississippi Delta to Los Angeles in the mid-’60s and his parents bought a home after his father landed a job at the Firestone factory in south Los Angeles. But the story takes a turn when the factory closes down, and that Promised Land remains ever elusive, even in the California of our collective imagination.
Then the jobs moved out
Then daddy died and we lost the house
Moved into the Jordan Downs
And been here ever since
Once they’ve settled in Jordan Downs, the mother dreams of life “Over Alameda,” the street that borders the housing project to the east, beyond which “the green grass grows” and the “white folks live.” But the young protagonist has only known life in Jordan Downs, and he says “all I have discovered/ There is nothing for a boy of color but to fight.” Jordan Downs was ground zero for the Grape Street Watts Crips, a notorious gang that was the subject of the early ’90s film Menace II Society, and while the narrator does not explicitly say he is a Crip, all he knows is that very neighborhood and the reality of an endless fight to escape to something better, “over Alameda.” The listener can fill in the gaps how they see fit.
Ernest Hemingway explained the importance of omission in writing in his treatise on bullfighting, Death In The Afternoon, arguing that he attempted to show only the tip of the iceberg in his work. “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about,” Hemingway said, “he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
In the same spirit, Earle does not spell out the historical and geographical minutiae of the story. Such details are not necessary for one to fully apprehend the overtures of meaning offered by the song. “Over Alameda” is really just a song about the hope for something better, and it allows the emotion of the music to convey that hope as much as anything else. The listener must rely on their own creative capacity to fill in the details of the story, which in turn helps deepen their connection to the song. As a result, instead of creating distance between the listener and his work through his economy, Earle is closing it.
Hemingway’s iceberg analogy is indeed an interesting theory of writing, certainly not the only one, but one Justin Townes Earle seems to have used remarkably well.