Five years ago, when he was a crack addict, Justin Townes Earle probably associated the phrase “high and lonesome” with something different than what he does now. It was the feeling he got after hitting the pipe, then the feeling he got when the fried-brain buzz wore off. Now high and lonesome is the sound—that Hank Williams-y hollow-gutted-but-full-bodied, sad-but-joyful croon—Earle lets loose when he leans into the microphone and takes you, no matter where you are, to Nashville.
Last night, Earle channeled the heroes of old-timey music and traditional country, as well as more recent heroes of garage punk, at Joe’s Pub. It was one of the smaller audiences I’ve been a part of there, which, as is often the case, made the show that much more special. Especially since it probably won’t be possible to see Earle anywhere but larger, packed venues next time he comes around.
Earle, now a clean and sober, lanky 26-year-old, looked and sounded like a Ryman veteran circa 1950, all pomaded hair and Southern drawl. He told us he’d be playing some “hillbilly music,” and he wasn’t lying. Earle and his sidekick Cory “Ain’t Right in the Head” Yountes picked-and-grinned their way through a flawless set filled with songs about the Civil War, chitlins, cheating hearts and trains.
Most of the songs were from Earle’s strong debut solo album, The Good Life (Bloodshot Records). Although you can hear a little bit of Hank, some Woody and early Willie, and a bunch of Ray Price on The Good Life, it’s all original material. Including the ballads, where you can catch a rare glimpse of another of Earle’s influences—his daddy, Steve. The familiar paternal rasp shows up momentarily in “Who Am I To Say”, and then disappears, allowing the younger Earle to remind us that his roots run deeper than his family tree.
While The Good Life is a perfect introduction to Earle’s many talents, he shines even brighter live, which isn’t always so with singer-songwriters. Last night’s set was proof that Earle is a uniquely gifted performer. He’s someone you want to watch as well as listen to. He’s someone you want to ride the rails with, from Appalachia to Bakersfield and back—which is exactly what we did last night. The last stop was an unexpected detour to Minneapolis, where we got off to a cover of The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait.” It was Earle proving one more time that what’s old can be new, again and again.