Justin Townes Earle Dead at 38

The Americana star and son of Steve Earle is gone too soon.

Rolling Stone (“Justin Townes Earle, Americana Singer-Songwriter, Dead at 38“):

Justin Townes Earle, the singer-songwriter known for his mix of old-timey roots music and modern-day Americana, has died at age 38. A rep for Earle’s label New West Records confirmed the musician’s death to Rolling Stone, though a cause of death was not immediately revealed.

“It is with tremendous sadness that we inform you of the passing of our son, husband, father and friend Justin,” a post on Earle’s Instagram page read. “So many of you have relied on his music and lyrics over the years and we hope that his music will continue to guide you on your journeys. You will be missed dearly Justin.”

Earle, a tall and gangly figure with a from-another-time aesthetic, was a captivating presence onstage, where he’d sometimes address the crowd in a carnival barker style. But it was his albums, like 2010’s soulful Harlem River Blues, 2017’s introspective Kids in the Street, and last year’s shuffling, ominous The Saint of Lost Causes that best summed up his man-out-of-time appeal. A favorite in Americana music circles, he was named Emerging Act of the Year at the 2009 American Honors & Awards, and nominated as Artist of the Year in 2012.

“Had a lot of good times and made a lot of good music with JTE. So sad for his family tonight,” Jason Isbell tweeted. “He was always kind to me and he’s gone too soon,” wrote Margo Price.

Born January 4th, 1982, Earle was the son of the country-rocker Steve Earle, who named him after his friend, the songwriter Townes Van Zandt. His mother, Carol Ann Hunter, never cared for the name, Earle told Rolling Stone last year.

“My mother hated Townes Van Zandt. My first name was supposed to be Townes, but my mother would not have it,” he said. “She hated him because of the trouble that Dad and him got into, but she still played his music.”

Earle first came on the scene with the 2007 EP Yuma, and would release a string of albums on the Bloodshot Records label. The title track to his 2010 project for the label, Harlem River Blues, won Song of the Year at the 2011 Americana Honors. He performed the song during an appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman, with Jason Isbell backing him up on guitar.

[…]

Like his father, Earle battled drugs and alcohol during his career. But as he told Chris Shiflett on the Walking the Floor podcast in 2017, he was sober when he began making records. “I got all my craziness out of the way as a coffeehouse musician and a roadie,” he said.

[…]

Earle, who was born and raised in Nashville, recalled his first time performing with his father, when he was just 17.

“Me and my dad played a few Doc Watson songs,” he told Rolling Stone. “We’re Earles, we’re arrogant, and we always feel good about what we do, but it was intimidating. I’ll tell you, the second time we played together, I had to play with him and Guy Clark at MerleFest, in front of Doc Watson. It scared the shit out of me.”

It’s a damn shame. He was really coming into his own as a musician, having not only carved out a style very distinct from that of his legendary father but also moving into producing albums for other artists.

My late wife an I saw JTE at the Birchmere, a small venue in the area, and were sitting right near the stage. He was the opening act for Casey Chambers, of whom she was a fan. This would have been around 2009, when he was just starting out, and it was the first I’d heard of him.

We also saw Steve Earle at the same venue a few years earlier. For that matter, I’ve seen both Doc Watson and Guy Clark, both now gone, over the years.

I’ve never seen Jason Isbell in person but enjoy his live shows on YouTube and other venues. And I’ve been listening to Chris Shiflett’s Walking the Floor podcast for years. He’s the lead guitarist for the Foo Fighters but his a side gig doing country-rock both as a solo artist and with the Dead Peasants.

FILED UNDER: Obituaries, Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. EddieInCA says:

    I like to think that I’m fairly well educated and up to date with most pop culture but until this post I’d never heard of this man.

    RIP.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA: Music is incredibly segmented these days. I’ll often discover an artist that I really like ten years after they hit the scene.

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  3. EddieInCA says:

    @James Joyner:

    Agreed. My wife is somewhat of a music nerd, and she constantly introduces me to music I didn’t know. Of course, I mentioned this artist to her, and she says “Yeah. We have three or four of his albums on our hard drive.”

    We have an 8 terabyte hard drive with our entire music collection. It has about 4.5 terabytes of music on it now. 4.49 terrabytes my wife uploaded to it. I uploaded maybe 100 songs to it. It’s backed up on two other hard drives. I think my wife could easier lose me than lose her music.

    Me? I listen to the same 50 songs from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

    8
  4. Scott says:

    @James Joyner: I used to keep up by letting the kids choose the music while driving them to their various activities. Now that they are adults, if they are at home or in the car, I kind of encouraged them to BT their phones into the home or car system so we can listen to what they are listening to. Also creates conversation topics. They kind of like to show their musical tastes. Of course, I torture them in return with progressive rock or endless Neil Young.

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  5. CSK says:

    @EddieInCA:
    Me neither. Still, R.I.P.

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  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    Good speed JTE, your music will live on.

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  7. Gustopher says:

    I’ll admit that I know his father’s music way more than his. Poor Steve Earle, a man should not have to bury his children.

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  8. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @EddieInCA: I’d never heard of either Justin or his father. On the other hand, I only listen to music; I don’t follow the people to speak of. If it wasn’t for Cortana on my computer, I’d probably not be able to follow half the stuff people are talking about on this site. Easily half.

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  9. Kurtz says:

    @Gustopher:

    He was excellent in The Wire, excepting his version of “Way Down in the Hole” for the opening credits of the final season.