Every interview. Every review. Every programme note. Every three line product description in every record store. Every time a radio DJ plays one of his songs… there’s THAT phrase gnawing away – “Son of legendary country rebel Steve Earle”. Nowadays, Justin Townes Earle has a not so absent father.
He mentioned him first this time. It’s in the title. I wasn’t even going to bring it up, it didn’t seem fair. This is Earle Junior’s seventh album and by now he has his own story, his own scars and is well established as one of country’s finest contemporary songwriters. He deserves to be recognised on his own terms. Yet the presence of Dad always looms large. He is the unavoidable key to the record, the root of JTE’s unsettled childhood and ultimate link to so much of his angst and self-destruction. It’s time to sleigh the elephant in the room once and for all.
It helps if you know a bit of the back story: Earle senior was the big, burly Texas troubadour whose hard drinking rebellion made him too dangerous for the Country Music establishment, but landed him crossover fame in the ’80s with landmark albums Guitar Town and Copperhead Road. As he raised hell on the road, battled heroin addiction and spent time in jail, his son was raised by a struggling single mother in Nashville. Justin grew up on grunge and metal, and only really delved deep into the Americana folk scene after first hearing Nirvana’s Unplugged cover of Leadbelly’s ‘In The Pines’. Bearing the name of his Godfather, the great Townes Van Zandt, he started out as a guitarist in his father’s band, but his own drug use, which began at just 12-years-old, resulted in five near death overdoses before he was 21. Now sober, married, happy and in a contemplative mood, the old issues are reflected upon in quite a gentile, plaintive way.
From the off Earle gets to the point, looking the old man in the eye and addressing him directly but calmly on first track Farther From Me: “Wish I could say that I know you/Because Lord, I wanna understand/ Need you to know, there’s nothing I want more in this world as a man”. It’s a consolatory opening line that relinquishes the cocksure swagger and glint-in-the-eye, roguish persona, and opens up a humbler, more vulnerable side than we’ve seen in the past.
Originally intended as a double album with last year’s underappreciated Single Mothers record, Absent Fathers is more than just one big therapy session though. Backed by the haunting pedal steel of Lambchop’s Paul Niehaus, it’s a throwback to an old-time Nashville sound, full of sparse, lonesome ballads and achingly beautiful melodies. The danger with these modern folk songwriters is that they try to put an alternative twist on things and try to maintain some form of indie rock credibility and crossover appeal. Earle’s roots in the genre are more genuine and unashamed than that, and he throws himself fully into a crooning Southern Gentleman stance – part Hank Williams, part ragtime, part Renaissance man – the sort of character Jack White thinks he might be in his quieter moments.
The vintage elegance and brutal honesty of tracks like ‘Least I Got The Blues’ and ‘Call You Momma’ mark Earle’s progression as a songwriter and fully functioning human with heart-warming charm, but there’s also much to love about the honky tonk boogie of ‘Round The Bend’, the Memphis waltz of ‘When The One You Love Loses Faith In You’ and the Hawaiian slide guitar lament of ‘Slow Monday’. It’s painful and slow at times, but Absent Fathers seems like a breakthrough for Earle – at least in his search for his own sanity. Timeless and wistfully nostalgic in sound, Earle’s real talent lies in turning a deeply personal tale into universal feeling. A skill that even his father might appreciate.
Absent Fathers is out now via Vagrant Records.