2011 Artist of the Year – Justin Townes Earle

The Saving Country Music Artist of the Year is not like any of the other end-of-year awards. There are no candidates to choose from, and I don’t canvas the readership for help in choosing the winner.

There are a few basic principles that govern Saving Country Music, and one of them is that the focus is always people first, then music. Music is just the excuse to learn about people, and to create community. More than any of the other awards, this principle governs who gets chosen for Artist of the Year. But overall, the one requisite that must be met is that the artist must inspire me more than any other.

In 2009, when Saving Country Music was still somewhat in it’s infancy, I named Justin Townes Earle‘s Midnight At The Movies Album of the Year. After watching moving performances from Justin in 2009, talking to him personally and in an interview format, I was convinced this was a man who had a singular talent way beyond what his famous name afforded him. I was moved, and inspired. There is nothing I take more seriously than putting my name behind somebody, as an artist, and as a human, and I was willing to put whatever force my feeble, fledgling SCM name had behind Justin Townes Earle.

Then came 2010, at South by Southwest in March, where Justin Townes Earle performed. My stupid little blog now burgeoning, and my eyes all aglow to see my favorite artist perform, when Earle took the stage in his light blue pants two sizes too small and a bowtie, I could tell immediately he was wasted, and wasted while the sun was hung at mid afternoon. He put on a pathetic performance that didn’t just disappoint me, it broke my heart. I was devastated. I believed in this man, and as a student of his career I knew the key to Justin’s success was his sobriety. I had no doubt in my mind he was off the wagon. Rumors swirling about SXSW seemed to confirm this diagnosis.

But anybody can have a bad performance, or a relapse, and so I kept my observations to myself, waiting for a possible redemption. Unfortunately I did not find it in the album he released later in the year, Harlem River Blues. It’s not that it was bad, it’s just I knew Justin was capable of so much better, and in my review I called into question Justin’s sobriety as the culprit.

My accusation effected a small, but heated backlash from some JTE fans who said it was unfair and unfounded for me to question his sobriety. Then in September of 2010, a few weeks after posting my review it was revealed that Justin Townes Earle had been arrested in Indianapolis after a drink and drug-fueled altercation. Saving Country Music broke the story. Justin Townes Earle and I had come full circle.

My next Justin Townes Earle interaction was in December of 2010, when he performed at The Parish in Austin, TX, stone sober. Since that performance, I have had to come to grips with the idea that I may never see a stronger live performance by an artist for the rest of my life. It was that good. Legendary. And many folks who witnessed Justin on the same tour and subsequent ones have said similar things.

As a music critic, I always make sure to measure music not only against it’s peers and other common standards, I measure it against the strengths and shortcomings of the artists themselves. And doesn’t it seem like the most brilliant of the artists amongst us are many times the ones to be balanced adversely by demons? If Justin’s artistic brilliance is measured 10 out of 10, then so is his propensity to get up every morning and shoot heroin. Only the people that live in that same extremity of the addiction battle can imagine that struggles that Justin Townes Earle must fight every day. And then to ride the emotional roller coaster of live performance, travel, uneven schedules, and the ridiculous amounts of temptations that adorn the musician’s path at every turn? Simply watching Justin Townes Earle stay sober is inspiring in itself. Pile on the fact that, oh yeah, he’s also one of the most engaging live performers of our generation, and has accumulated widespread adoration and respect from an impressive swath of the music world. That is the definition of a Saving Country Music Artist of the Year.

And Justin Townes Earle has admitted that in 2011 he had some very small, but very real relapses. And Justin will have more relapses. He admits that, and that is the theme of the song “It Won’t Be The Last Time” from his upcoming album. And I’m OK with that.

And I don’t care if you don’t like Justin Townes Earle’s music. What is music anyway except the mastering of motor skills to move your fingers and sing in such a way as to entertain? Compared to fighting off the demons of a man whose been a drug addict since before he was a teenager, music is relegated to a parlor trick. And I don’t care if Justin Townes Earle, his management or label, or anybody else gives a damn about my dumb little award. He probably thinks I’m an asshole, and you know what, I’m OK with that too. All I know is that in 2011, no other artist, none, inspired me more than Justin Townes Earle.