Addiction isn’t always self-inflicted. Some of us are born with it. Justin Townes Earle saw what that flawed DNA could rob at a raw young age.
“Everybody tells me my dad’s a legend, but I always remember him as the guy that stole my Nintendo for crack money,” says the son of country icon Steve Earle, who struggled with drugs in the early 1990s, when 30-year-old Justin was a boy.
It didn’t take long for junior to follow the path. By the time Justin hit his early teens, he had overdosed on heroin and been hospitalised for a week. When the doctors removed the IVs, he checked out of hospital and jumped onto a tour bus as a backup musician for his dad. His addiction got him fired and he wasted the rest of the decade on Nashville’s streets, shooting up and strumming along with whatever mediocre troupe would have him.
“I’ve lived in shitty motels and I’ve lived in shittier motels,” Justin says. “But I wasn’t stupid, I knew I had a problem with drugs from pretty much the first time I used them, because I knew that I liked it too much.”
Today Justin is sober and touring on the back of a new album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. On his last visit, in April 2012, he and dad Steve were both slotted in at the Byron Bay Bluesfest, but didn't tour together. “We butt heads pretty hard,” Justin says. “We’re better now, but we can’t fly too close on each other’s radars, because we’re too much alike.”
It would be easy for Justin to resent his father for an inherited addiction, in the same way that some critics dismiss him for simply "inheriting" his elder’s talent. But the story’s murkier than that. Steve Earle may have won three Grammys and recorded massive country hits like ‘Copperhead Road’. But Justin has been lauded for hopping between genres like honky-tonk and rollicking rockabilly on earlier albums, before settling on Memphis-style soul with his latest release. It might be a sign of the son eclipsing the father, but Justin has his own yardstick when eyeing his dad.
“It’s not that I don’t think my father‘s a legend. But people will tell me he’s a good man, and I’m like, ‘How the fuck do you know?’ Assuming someone’s good because they can write a song is a bad misconception, ‘cause I can fuck up with the best of them.”
And he has – even in his recent sober years. In September 2010, Justin was arrested for battery, public drunkenness and resisting arrest after a gig in Indianapolis. He suspended his tour for two months and checked into rehab as audience members took to Twitter to suggest Earle was “wasted” and “belligerent”.
“I’m not legally allowed to talk about it,” Justin says of the incident, before adding wryly, “I’m fine now. I mean I’d been sober for five years and I just fell off the wagon for, ya know, about a year.”
He captured the beginning of that relapse on the aptly titled, ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’’, a melancholy tune with big-band-brass notes that swell like bruises. In fact, most of his intimate moments wind up on record, even those that strengthened the strained bond with his father. On the 2009 Grammy-winning Townes, Steve invited Justin to sing a cover of ‘Mr Mudd and Mr Gold’, a tune written by the elder Earle’s mentor, fellow folk luminary and addict, Townes Van Zandt. Justin says it was fun to record, even though they argued over which tempo to play in.
“I’m still not good at taking advice from my father,” Justin says of heeding Steve’s expertise, be it in song writing or addiction. He adds that he felt no need to turn to his old man after his recent relapse or arrest.
If he ever has a son of his own, Justin knows similar hurdles lay waiting.
“I’m 30 years old and I don’t have kids yet for a reason, because I’m not ready. And I think that’s the one place that my father went wrong with me – he just wasn’t ready.”
Justin Townes Earle will be playing a special matinee show at the Corner Hotel and will be joined on tour with Houston singer-songwriter Robert Ellis, who has received critical acclaim with his debut album Photographs. He also plays Castlemaine Theatre Royal on February 2.