Justin Townes Earle’s love of classic honky-tonk is still plain to hear, but the songs on his second album, Midnight at the Movies, are stylistically more diverse. He experiments more freely with elements like bluegrass and rock, even including a cover of the Replacements’ hit, “Can’t Hardly Wait.”
Still present, though, are the comparisons to his namesake, Townes Van Zandt, and his father, singer-songwriter Steve Earle. Recently, he talked with CMT.com about the new album and what it’s like to be not only the son of a famous singer-songwriter but also a strong mother.
CMT: A movie theater is an interesting choice for the theme on Midnight at the Movies. What’s the reason behind that?
Earle: The reason that imagery got used was because when I was about 18 years old, I was obsessed with Jack Kerouac, and I was obsessed with that whole “Times Square in the mid-40s early ’50s” idea of these dank movie theaters that showed nothing but dirty movies. And so it was just a bit of imagery that stuck with me. I think that the imagery of lone men sitting in dirty porn theaters, I don’t think there’s anything more lonely sounding than that. So it was something that was easy for me. It was an easy frame for me to put this particular picture into.
You wrote a lot of the songs on your first album, The Good Life, earlier in life, and they were just waiting around for an album. Was that the case for Midnight at the Movies as well?
No, two of the songs on Midnight at the Movies are old songs. “Halfway to Jackson,” I wrote when I was 15, and it was actually the first song I ever finished. And then “Walk Out,” I wrote when I was about 16. … I like to use little bits of my past catalog just because I don’t want to forget about the songs, and if they fit the frame, you just put them in there. There’s no sense in breaking your ass trying to write something that you’ve already written.
Eight months between The Good Life and Midnight at the Movies doesn’t seem like much time to write and record an entire album.
I was going through a lot of changes in my life, and it was just time to do it. People have kind of starting calling me that strange word, “prolific.” And I definitely don’t want there to be any misconceptions. I’m not saying that it won’t happen, but people should not expect two records a year out of me. I already do have designs and have another record already written and another record halfway written. So it’s like I am getting ready to release records at a very rapid pace for the first few years, but that’s not something that people can expect for my career.
What about “Mama’s Eyes”? Can you explain that song a little bit?
Well, “Mama’s Eyes” was a very concentrated effort by me to make sure that everybody that listens to my music realizes that I am not an asexual product of Steve Earle. I was raised by Carol-Ann Earle, not Steve Earle, and I grew up with her rules. I wanted mama to get a little credit because she broke her ass for me when I was growing up. She’d work three jobs at a time and really worked her ass off to make sure that my head stayed above water. And I was not an easy kid to keep up with. I was a pain in the ass. And I wanted to make sure that mom got hers because people write and talk about dad all the time. He gets plenty of attention.
Has your mom heard the song?
Yeah, she loves it.
I really love the last verse in “Mama’s Eyes” when you have that moment of clarity. I was wondering if that was a song you would have written backwards?
It actually is a song that I wrote backwards. I had the mother’s eyes thing much earlier in the song, and it was kind of a comparison that I would make at a chorus when I was first writing it. And then I thought about like, “If I was listening to this song, what would make it punch me right between the eyes?” And that would be to not bring up the most devastating part — that you do remind yourself of your mother, whether you like it or not. You know, save that till the end because most men look like their mother. That’s just the plain fact of it, and it scares a lot of people.
Even though you grew up with your mom, was it still hard to be the son of a famous singer-songwriter?
Well, my mom and I didn’t have a lot of money, and for all intents and purposes, I grew up just like every other kid that grew up in the 12 South area [of Nashville]. When I was a kid, it was a little more run-down back then, and it was kind of a rough little neighborhood. I grew up just the same. You know, I had the shaved head and the rat tail and wore the Jams and Air Jordans and got ringworm just like every other kid that rolled around in the grass at Sevier Park. So I never really had to pay attention to it until I started doing this for a living, which was many years ago. And I spent many years, luckily, not in the public eye but trying to separate myself from my father. But, you know, I really realize that I sing different than my father, I write different than my father, I sound different than my father and any separation other than that is personal. And nobody else’s business.
How do you feel about where you are musically?
I’m where I need to be for the moment. There’s no way to judge the evolution of a songwriter over his career, but I think right now I stand — more so than I did with The Good Life — I’ve made a record that’s a better representative and did more for me spiritually than any record I’ve ever made.