Photo courtesy of Bloodshot Records
Justin Townes Earle is an imposing figure, standing 6-feet-6-inches, heavily tattooed, with a stare that seems to look straight through you.
He’s also a walking anomaly, like a character out of a novel.
All Southern charm and smiles, Earle still has a perpetual dark streak always visible somewhere in his demeanor, a pain brought on by years of addiction and substance abuse.
Despite his notoriously troubled past, he’s quick to disarm you with his thick-south Nashville accent and old-world manner.
The son of outlaw Americana legend Steve Earle, who’s known for his unique guitar-picking, thick-like-molasses vocals and modern take on traditional storytelling through song.
Justin is also known for his vintage-style tailored suits and bowties.
So well-known, in fact, that GQ named him one of the 25 most stylish men in the world in 2010, alongside the likes of Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt.
The sharply dressed Justin is currently touring in promotion of his latest album “Harlem River Blues,” and will be in Columbus as a special-guest opener for The Decemberists on Saturday at The Lifestyle Communities’ Pavilion.
“Harlem River Blues” was released in September 2010 to critical acclaim, debuting at No. 47 on the Billboard 200. The album showcases the cornerstones of Americana music, with heavy doses of blues, folk, country and gospel.
The title track is a blues romp with an uplifting sound, despite its contradictory tale of a troubled man jumping into the Harlem River to drown.
Justin explained that the inspiration came from reading Jim Carroll’s “The Basketball Diaries” as a teenager.
“There’s a significant portion of the book where he’s talking about his friends jumping off of cliffs into the Harlem River, and for some reason that image always stuck with me throughout the years,” Justin said in an interview with The Lantern.
The song also features a gothic-sounding choral background.
“I got this idea for this record to kind of use different forms of gospel, kind of trace gospel from the country churches where it began all the way up to the Apollo Theatre,” he said.
Justin has spent many of his recent years calling New York City home, and as a result, the city is well represented in his music.
“Workin’ for the MTA” is a modern adaptation of a Woody Guthrie-style train song, set in the dark subway tunnels of New York City.
Justin said he struggled with writing the song because of the lack of romance in the gritty subway setting. His solution was giving the story a dark twist by making it a first-person narrative of a cold, depressed, over-worked subway operator.
This kind of methodical approach to songwriting is common for Justin, who describes himself as a very conscious writer.
“(In) his song ‘They Killed John Henry,’ he was trying to write about his grandfather, but he didn’t want to specifically talk about his grandfather, so he drew a parallel to a folk hero, which I thought was pretty cool,” said David Chirdon, a fourth-year in history.
Justin tends to have a specific sound in mind when writing and will construct the different pieces of a song in his head as it progresses, he said.
“It kind of helps me with the words, you know, if there’s going to be an organ or some horns on it, you can kind of play with your phrasing a little bit and things like that,” Justin said.
He’s also extremely particular about his influences and how they’re represented in his music.
During the making of “Harlem River Blues,” Justin said his two biggest influences were The Staple Singers and The Carter Family, pioneers of gospel/soul and country music respectively.
He said he found a connection between the two in that they both sang church music, giving a chuckle as he explained the way they celebrated their religion through music is where their difference in skin color were apparent – The Staple Singers were a black family, The Carter Family white.
“The white version was a lot more monotone, still beautiful, but a lot more monotone,” Justin said. “It didn’t have as much dynamic as the black version, but it was all getting to the same point.”
That point of celebrating spiritual life in music is one Justin has always taken part in. It’s his personal life in which he has endured his greatest troubles.
He has battled drug and alcohol addictions for nearly two-thirds of his 29 years.
“There’s been an issue since I was 10 years old,” Justin said. “It’s something that I’ve fought with my whole life, my drug addiction is kind of continuing always.”
In the early 2000s, he spent two years as a homeless drug addict after getting kicked out of his father’s band because of his addiction.
Eventually he cleaned up and began a solo career, releasing his “Yuma” EP in 2007, though he’s struggled with addiction on and off since.
“For me, it’s nothing earth-shattering because I’ve been dealing with it for a long time,” he said.
Justin began a tour last September to support then-newly released “Harlem River Blues.” It included a scheduled headlining stop in Columbus, but he never made it.
Police arrested him after a Sept. 16 show in Indianapolis early in the tour.
He faced battery, public intoxication and resisting law enforcement charges following an altercation backstage at the venue in which he was accused of doing $200 in damage and assaulting the venue’s owner.
Shortly thereafter, Justin canceled the rest of his dates and entered rehab.
“I just got to drinking too much. I don’t operate well when I drink a lot, because then I start doing a lot of cocaine,” Justin said. “Staying away from bottles of alcohol is very, very important for me.”
He has been back on the road doing shows again for roughly four months now, and said he’s been doing fine and the tour is going great.
His appearance with The Decemberists on Saturday will be part of a string of shows he’s doing with the group that will last into the beginning of May.
“It’s awesome for us, it means people will get down here early and they’ll stay for the whole show,” said Marissa Luther, marketing manager for PromoWest Productions. “He’s a perfect opener for The Decemberists.”
Justin has also recently come up with a unique new way to connect with fans around the world while he’s on the road.
He’s currently accepting tattoo design entries online for a competition in which he’ll choose a winner and get their design permanently placed on his body.
With many entries already, he said he thinks it will be a while before he chooses one, so those interested will have plenty of time to submit their work.
In looking toward the future, Justin said he thinks his next album will draw heavily from the sounds of artists that came out of Memphis in the 1960s, such as The Staple Singers and Otis Redding.
He tried this soulful, horn-infused R&B sound for the first time on the aching “Slippin’ and Slidin'” off of “Harlem River Blues,” and found the results too compelling to ignore.
“I think it’s where I feel the most comfortable operating,” Justin said. “I think I found a good voice for myself on this last record.”