“Landlord’s a cheap bastard,” says singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, gesturing toward the dripping faucet in his kitchen. It’s par for the course here in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. And given the arctic conditions outside, things could be worse: A sheet of paper taped above the mailboxes in Earle’s building’s entryway announces “1/9 BOILER BROKEN!!!” Fortunately, today is not January 9.
“I’ve lived in neighborhoods like this all my life,” Earle says. He’s seen a lot in his 27 years, as we’re about to find out. Crown Heights is a piece of cake.
We’ll get it out of the way now: Justin Townes Earle is the son of country maverick Steve Earle.
“I’m more my momma’s boy than father’s son any day of the week,” he says. “Though you can’t prove that for attitude.” No shit. Unlike Daddy, he’s long and lean, and seems made more of not-Steve than Steve, which is fitting. “My parents were well divorced when Guitar Town came out,” he explains. “I was born and raised in Nashville. My dad moved out to L.A., and I saw him two or three times a year.” And Steve, cultivating a drug habit that would hobble his career and nearly kill him, wasn’t exactly sending wads of cash to his ex-wife and son.
Justin ran away from home at 15, and fell harder and faster into drug addiction than his father. In short order, his life became unsustainable: On the road with his clean and sober father, he played keys in the band and did way too much coke; back in Nashville, he lived on the streets. “The last two years I was using, I lived with two sweet ladies who were probably the nastiest prostitutes in Nashville,” he recalls.
Like his dad, he cleaned up—and like his dad, he is a hell of a songwriter. But there are significant differences: Justin is a better singer and more country. By the former we mean that he doesn’t snarl, and by the latter we mean he’ll never be pegged as “country-rock.” For proof, listen to the title track of his 2008 album, The Good Life, a lonesome shuffle that pines for the Grand Ole Opry circa 1953, five years before his father was born. Midnight at the Movies, released in March, picks up where Good Life left off.
Much of Justin’s story is written on his body. A heart with yellow roses around it is for Papa, his father’s father. The idea for a pair of hammers next to his thumb comes from Guy Clark, who told the young Justin he had “thumbs like sledgehammers.” His most important tattoo might be the black circle with three stars—the symbol of Tennessee. “I’ll always be a Tennessee boy,” he says. “I love New York, but it’s just where I’m staying. When I die I’ll be buried in Tennessee, preferably the eastern mountains.”