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.