Honky-tonk blues youngun Justin Townes Earle, 26, hits McGonigel's Mucky Duck tonight. Rocks Off called him up last week to ask about last year's first round of tours behind debut release The Good Life, his early hip-hop influences, his new record and how he'll handle a venue with no room to dance.
Rocks Off: Your sound really bridges this gap between old fans of country and their kids. I mean, country music kind of went to hell and your sound reminds a younger generation of the honky-tonk stuff their parents listened to - you know, stuff that was actually good. So your fans are the old guys as well as kids who for years were saying "I don't like country," but were referring to today's version.
Justin Townes Earle: I think that we have kind of a stunning mix. I think it's because we've done a lot of shows with bands like Lucero and Jason Isbell, so we ended up with, like, a 50-year-old couple standing next to a kid with "Kill Everyone" tattooed on his throat. It's pretty interesting and I think what that is, is that all those old country guys, I mean, they were kind of the original punk rockers.
Webb Pierce, you know, they just smiled on the outside. They were dark and mean and drugged and doing everything wrong on the outside. I think kids like that imagery.
RO: Were you surprised by this mix? By the reaction you received from audiences?
JTE: I was very surprised because I didn't know - I think I'm lucky in the fact that I'm really good about not having expectations as far as this goes. Because I know it too well, I know what a fucking cruel bitch this can be, and so the best thing you can do is not have any plans and do what you're going to do and hope for the best.
I can guarantee if I get make records for as long as I want to, ya'll ain't gonna like every record I make. Right now I'm feel very good about the fact that I've gotten a good reception early on and I just hope the sophomore gets the same result [as The Good Life].
RO: How is the sophomore coming along?
JTE: The sophomore [Midnight at the Movies] is done and in the can and going to be out on March 3. We recorded in October.
RO: How is it in comparison to The Good Life?
JTE: It's an expansion on that. We definitely did not want to make the same record twice. My music is always going to be deeply rooted in old honky-tonk and old blues. That's one thing you can always count on. I just can't get away from that.
It has a little bit more of a ragtime singer/songwriter feel as opposed to a honky-tonk/singer-songwriter feel, like the last record. I mean, it's got some more elements of Slim Harpo (above) and Buddy Holly as opposed to Hank and George and Jelly Roll.
RO: You also seem to name off a lot of Houston references in other interviews when it comes to your blues influences.
JTE: Well, yeah, Houston has always been a hard livin' kind of city. It's one of the roughest cities in America so it possesses a lot of good hard-time music. That's one of my favorite parts about big, rough cities. I think Lightnin' Hopkins was what I love most about that.
RO: Is it true you didn't listen to a lot of your dad's [Steve Earle] music growing up? I've heard you were really into hip-hop. Did that come into play when you started writing your own music?
JTE: I was in more of a blues/jug-band kind of thing before I got into to the classic country sound and it all kind of got filtered through that. I think that actually the hip-hop filter, to begin with, was actually kind of a good thing because I wasn't listening to like gangsta rap, it was a little more organic - stuff like the Roots (above). It was real musical and it's the rhythm and the beat that's lost in country music these days.
If you listen to Hank Sr. or if you listen to Webb Pierce or Patsy Cline, I defy you to tell me that those songs don't have an extremely Black American influence. They're very much blues and that's what happened, that's where country music went wrong: somewhere in the '70s, somewhere somebody did too much blow and decided that country music needed to be whiter and that's where they fucked up.
RO: Last time you came through Houston you had a three-piece. Are you still touring in that format? Any newcomers in the mix?
JTE: It'll be a three-piece, but it won't be the same setup. In lieu of a bass player, there will be a fiddle player, so it will be mandolin and fiddle and me.
RO: One last thing: The venue you're playing here, the Mucky Duck, doesn't have a dance floor. There are tables and chairs in front of the stage. Last time you were here, you told the audience members something along the lines of "This is the last dance song, so if you have some balls you better dance." So, I implore you to tell them to clear the area in front of the stage so I can spin around.
JTE: I think that's a good idea. I will do that for you. - Dusti Rhodes
Earle plays a free in-store 6 p.m. tonight at Cactus Music, 2110 Portsmouth, 713-526-9272. And with Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers, 7:30 p.m. tonight at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, 713-528-5999. $15.