If I had to pick one stand out performer out of the dozen plus acts I saw at Pickathon outside of Portland last weekend, it would be Justin Townes Earle.
I was lucky enough to be able to see him three different times, and after his first show we sat down for a quick interview. Following is the audio, or an abridged transcript of our conversation.
Also, look for my review of Justin Townes’ performances at outlawmagazine.com.
Triggerman: There’s a lot of sons of famous artists, like Hank Williams III, Lucky Tubb is a guy who’s been coming up lately. It’s almost like those names are a blessing and a curse at the same time. In one way it might help you get your foot in the door a little bit, but there’s so many people that think you are just riding off the name.
JTE: Well you can do that, there’s a lot that do. Shelton (Hank III) ain’t one of them, but there’s a lot of sons and daughters that all it is is just a name. But at the same time too it’s really jive to change your name. People always ask me if I made Townes my name, and I’m like no, it’s the name on my birth certificate, it is what my daddy named me. It is what he intended me to be called.
Triggerman: There’s nothing you really can do about it.
JTE: And I wouldn’t even if I could. I like the music history and I like the musical history of my family and everything that comes with it.
Triggerman: And having said that there’s a lot of people out there with a name behind them and they just strum (the guitar) and have other people write the songs. This was the first time I’ve seen you live and I’ve heard it coming through in your albums, but I’m really impressed with your guitar style. I don’t know what you would call it, but you pluck the bass line with your thumb and strum with your other fingers.
JTE: It’s kind of taken from clawhammer banjo. It is kind of my own thing. I developed it from watching clawhammer players. And then I changed it because like in clawhammer you hold your hand still, but in mine you work two fingers and the thumb. But it’s the same action as a clawhammer banjo.
Triggerman: And with the last song you played “Midnight at the Movies,” you had a couple of players with you from the Foghorn Stringband, but you told them “I got this last one guys” and the sound was full. You weren’t up there just strumming chords.
JTE: I’m first and foremost a singer/songwriter. And if you can’t perform by yourself, especially in this climate, in this day and age, if you’re a singer/songwriter and you can’t so shows solo you are not going to fucking make it. I don’t care who you think you are, you cannot afford the band.
Triggerman: You usually tour with a mandolin player, right?
JTE: Yeah, Cory is usually on tour with me. I’ve got to have shows where I mix it up. When I do solo shows I can do whatever the fuck I want. There’s nobody I have to tell what I’m playing next, nobody who needs to know what key it’s in, and that’s fun. But it is hard. I think the problem with most songwriters these days is they don’t have gears. They have one gear,and it’s usually first gear. It’s this real melancholic, like slow . . . and they make these really melancholic slow records and they can’t amp it up.
Triggerman: Man I’m so glad you said that. No offense to the other acts I’ve seen here (at Pickathon) but I had that exact observation. Maybe it is just the trend right now, but meek lyrics, the same tempo, no dynamics to set the songs apart from each other. And I did notice those dynamics in your set.
JTE: There’s a lot of people who like listen to Bob Dylan and they listen to Lead Belly but they missed the fact that . . . like they say that Bob Dylan just strummed. Bob Dylan was one of the best flat pickers there was and he’s one of the best finger pickers there are. He was a motherfucker of a guitar player. It’s the same people who say it’s the sloppy Levon Helm style of drumming. That was not sloppy, that was like negro and RIGHT ON! You have to have different gears. I just don’t think anyone has that interesting of shit to say, you have to have different gears.
Triggerman: You had an album come out a while back, “Midnight at the Movies,” and one of the reasons I wanted to see you live is because I really appreciate the arrangement. You have a lot of sparseness, a lot of space. Not in everything, but it has a good feel to it. So I was interested to see how that translated live, and I was really impressed with the way it filled up and still represented the music well without all the instrumentation.
JTE: I don’t write songs with a band. Nobody is in the room with me when I write the songs. The songs are written to stand up as solo acoustic songs first.