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Gospel without God

Justin Townes Earle talks about his father, Woody Guthrie, and the dangers of bringing beer and guns to recording sessions

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Though he gets his last name from his father, alt-country trailblazer Steve, and his middle name from the late, great Townes Van Zandt, Justin Townes Earle has spent his career trying to find his own voice. We got him on the phone at his home in Nashville in advance of his performance at this week’s Hot August Blues.

City Paper: Hey man. How’s it going?

Justin Townes Earle: I’m just sitting around watching Ken Burns’ Baseball for about the hundredth time.

CP: About every year, you’re coming out with tons of solid new songs and with so much touring, how do you make that happen?

JTE: I’ve always been fairly restless and always looking to what’s next, and I think I have such a wide variety that I love and a wide variety of music that I grew up around and was influenced by that I don’t think I can stay in any one place too long.

CP: On “Am I That Lonely Tonight,” the first song on your new record [Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now], it’s surprising to hear you sing about what I reckon is your dad. What do you make of that legacy?

JTE: I think it can be a devastating thing to someone’s career. If someone says that something like that doesn’t effect what they do, they’re lying. I did my best to steer wide of what my father did early on. It was something that came kind of naturally, because I had this flare for something even more traditional than what my father likes. It was easy to stay away. If you don’t get out from under that shadow, it will crush you.

CP: A lot of the other country guys seem so concerned about proving how country they are. But you’re not shy to sing about Brooklyn or the Lower East Side or to cover the Replacements. That’s something you haven’t seen much since Hank Jr. started dissing New York in ’70s.

JTE: First and foremost my music is steeped in Woody Guthrie—if I shoot from the hip, it’s going to be Woody Guthrie that I’m pulling out of my holster. Woody understood the country music and incorporated it, but he started singing about “Riding in My Car,” which was a very modern thing, and the “Grand Coulee Dam,” a marvel of modern engineering. He wasn’t like totally hokey; whatever he did was advanced. I also saw that what Gram Parsons was doing was working with soul music in his existing form in its time and place. “Midnight at the Movies,” was my first attempt for this soul-driven, slow gospel, but without God.

CP: If you were to give advice to a young band going to hole up and make a record, what would you say?

JTE: Leave the guns at home. Check your weapons at the door. I know musicians will cringe when I say this, but no beer on the recording session. That’s why I make records in seven days and other people make them in two months.

Justin Townes Earle plays Hot August Blues and Roots Festival on Aug. 18. For more information, visit justintownesearle.com

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