Friday, October 31, 2008

Justin Townes Earle - The Good Life

Justin Townes Earle is the son of country music star Steve Earle, the guy who brought back rockabilly in the late 80s with bitchin' records like Copperhead Road.  As if the surname wasn't enough to live up to, Justin's father was gracious enough to give him the name "Townes," one more recognizable than just about any other in country music.  For those unacquainted, Townes Van Zandt led one of the most storied lives in country history, and has been cited as an influence of every important songwriter you know: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, et al.  It's the equivalent of naming your kid "Dan Elvis Johnson" or "Sarah Aretha Robinson."

Earle is in many ways predisposed the fate of so many famous musicians' offspring (read: hype and disappointment).  That is unless he manages to continue to make albums as charming as his debut, The Good Life.  Released back in March of this year on Chicago's Bloodshot Records (hands down the best independent alt-country label in the biz), it's hard to chalk Earle's first attempt at record making up to beginner's luck.

For about half the tracks, Earle decides to look well beyond Dad and Van Zandt, instead harkening way back to the iconic Hank Williams.  His vocals sound far closer to Williams' patented honky tonk croon than to his dad's Springsteen-esque rasp.  His lyrics frequently take the same approach Williams did with his countless lost-without-love songs.  And most pleasantly, the hands off production, which more often than not just leaves the drums out entirely, is reminiscent of Williams' penchant for the stripped down sound of a couple guitars and a fiddle.

He certainly changes it up with tracks like the tell-all ballad "Who Am I to Say" and the Appalachian Civil War story, "Lone Pine Hill."  But Earle is best when he keeps things simple and allows his youth take center stage.  This more playful side is reflected in the lyrics and instrumentation alike, from lines like "All the fancy restaurants won't let me wait inside/ They serve me out the back door and never ask for a dime," to the addictive acoustic pickings on album opener "Hard Livin'."  The true standout, "Ain't Glad I'm Leaving," is Earle's best Hank impression, complete with Grand Ole Opry backup vocals, a healthy dose of twang, and the stinging line, "If you ain't glad I'm leaving/ Girl you know you oughta be"--it's a bit more leisurely, role-reversed "Move It on Over," and it's utterly fantastic.

As a country fan, this year's been a bit of a disappointment.  The list of pleasant-but-mostly-forgettable records is too long to list (see: Sera Cahoone, Justin Rutledge, Shelby Lynne).  Even if The Good Life isn't perfect (it's certainly not), it is absolutely memorable.  Justin Townes Earle might have a long way to go to live up to his name, but he's well on his way.

The Good Life is without a doubt the best country record of the year, although we'll see what Taylor Swift has to say about that in three weeks' time.

Check out Justin Townes Earle on MySpace and on Daytrotter.


John Boumgarden said...

incredible album always, thanks for the heads up

Adam said...

So glad you liked it, John.

John Boumgarden said...

Adam, I saw him two nights ago at a little bar in Maplewood, MO. Incredible show highlighted by an extremely talented musician. I look forward to seeing you in a week or so and talking with you about it.