Justin Townes Earle’s Struggle Is Over

In January of 2011, the alternative newsweekly for Dallas, TX—The Dallas Observer—thought it would be cute to field a list of music performers who they believed would die during that calendar year. It was the kind of snarky, hipster-ish coverage that was common in music at the time, but taken even further past any line of decency in this particular case. Along with aging and ailing legends like Aretha Franklin and Little Richard, the list also included Nashville native Justin Townes Earle, who had just turned 29-years-old a few days before.

“That he’s the son of one recovering addict (Steve Earle) and is named for a man who essentially drank himself to death (Townes Van Zandt) should have been warning enough. But the cautionary tales his dad must have shared still haven’t kept the second-generation singer-songwriter from messing with drugs and alcohol—to the point that he was forced to miss a few gigs and go to rehab following a booze-fueled Indianapolis dressing-room-trashing and donnybrook last year,” the paper quipped.

“I have a mom,” was one of Justin Townes Earle’s responses to the paper. He shared a few other more pointed ones as well. Earle ended up beating the paper’s prediction by nine years and change, but that is no victory. The death of Justin Townes Earle at 38 is an absolute tragedy, just like much of his life was. And though we still don’t have a cause of death—and may not for some time as the way final autopsy reports sometimes go—the end result is the same. Justin Townes Earle is dead, and it leaves one numbed, even if you can’t characterize it as entirely unexpected.

To say a light has gone from the Earth is to misunderstand Justin Townes Earle. It’s more like a painful and arduous struggle has come to its final, exhaustive conclusion. When someone passes, some love to say they’ve moved on to a better place, often more to comfort the living than to grieve the dead. But for Justin Townes Earle, this phrase very well might be true.

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It’s strange how quickly people forget in modern music, and move onto the next big thing, even in the otherwise thoughtful realm of independent roots music. These days when you name off the insurgent country and roots artists making moves and shaking things up, talk turns to Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Cody Jinks and the like.

But so often we forget how it was a wave of country music progeny in the mid oughts—principally Hank Williams III, Shooter Jennings, and Justin Townes Earle—who really helped set the stage for the full-blown roots music resurgence we enjoy today. Hank3 was more the rambunctious “punk gone country” character that created a fervent underground for country music. Shooter Jennings was the Southern rock version, signed to a major label, and married to a Sopranos star. And Justin Townes Earle was the songwriter, and the Americana upstart that appeared to be the future of the subgenre who could take it to new heights.

With his aching, painful delivery of poetically elegant songs ripped straight out of his own biography and smeared with tears and the residues of addiction, Justin Townes Earle embodied everything you wanted from the tragic troubadour holding on just enough to perform for you—all of it punctuated with the plucky, almost violent way he pulled at the lower strings of an acoustic guitar more akin to the clawhammer style inflicted on a banjo than the strums or fingerpicks accustomed to a six string.

Sometimes the music of Justin Townes Earle came with accompaniment. Cory Younts now of Old Crow Medicine Show toured with him on mandolin early on. Joshua Hedley (now a solo performer) played fiddle with Justin for a while, with Bryn Davies on upright bass added later for a 3-piece. In future incarnations Justin would feature a full band. But all Justin needed to make magic was himself. Often everything else just got in the way. His a capella version of “Louisiana 1927” might be the best example. His music was pure and true; an intuitive, yet unique amalgam of American roots—reverent, informed, full-bodied, and passionately delivered. Singing, writing, and performing was what Justin Townes Earle was born to do.

But the music of Justin Townes Earle always came with the measure of whose son and namesake he was, for better or worse. Of course a famous name will open doors for you in music with the way pedigree has paid off so frequently, especially in country music. But it also comes with expectations, and presupposed arguments about privileged upbringings and unfair prioritizations.

None of this was true for Justin Townes Earle though. With Steve Earle and Justin’s mother divorcing early in his life and being primarily raised by his mother, Justin Townes wasn’t raised in the business, he was raised in the streets of poor Nashville where at a tender age he was already trying hard drugs and learning how to be homeless. He’d done stints as a heroin and crack addict by the time he was 20, taking after his absent father in all of the wrong ways.

If anything, Justin Townes Earle was behind the 8-ball in his arduous journey to make it in music because of who he was. But efforts at sobriety came with perseverance to focus his mind on other obsessions beyond self-destructive ones, and revealed a talent all his own, and ultimately, resulted in worthy contributions to the legacy of roots music. After an EP called Yuma released in 2007 put him on the map, Justin Townes Earle enjoyed a quick ascent while signed with Bloodshot Records. His first LP The Good Life set the table. 2009’s Midnight at the Movies ended up being named Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year, and won him the Emerging Artist of the Year by the Americana Music Association.

By the time 2010 rolled around, Justin Townes Earle was in the same position we regard many of the surging artists of today—earning opportunities normally reserved for mainstream performers, and giving us hope for the future of country and roots. 2010’s Harlem River Blues saw Earle charting on major indexes, earning the right to perform on Letterman with an up-an-coming artist named Jason Isbell fresh out of the Drive-By Truckers playing guitar for him, and the title track from the record was named the 2011 Americana Music Association’s Song of the Year. In 2011, he was also named the Saving Country Music Artist of the Year. Earle was represented in part at the time by Traci Thomas—the behind-the-scenes manager who would later help Jason Isbell rise to prominence.

The success of Justin Townes Earle helped shift the focus in Americana music to not just emphasize older artists who had been abandoned by the country genre, but to look for fresh blood, and new voices that could bring younger listeners into the fold and build Americana into an influential and viable alternative to the mainstream. Earle also used his measure of fame to feature women of the roots world in his opening slots, including Samantha Crain, Caitlin Rose, Lilly Hiatt, Tristen, Jessica Lea Mayfield, and others.

But all of these accolades and opportunities were bisected by that ugly moment in Indianapolis referenced in the notorious Dallas Observer death prediction. On September 16th, 2010, Justin Townes Earle had been drinking before he took the stage at Radio Radio, which he wasn’t supposed to do. After someone in the crowd yelled at him to play “Free Bird,” and another crowd member threw his shirt on stage and it landed on Justin’s guitar, the songwriter lost it. After finishing the set with no encore, a green room got demolished, and Justin Townes Earle left the venue in handcuffs, later entering rehab.

All of this came out through his music, from “Mama’s Eyes” about his inalienable shortcomings and qualities acquired from his parents, to “Slippin’ An Slidin'” about falling off the wagon, to “It Won’t Be The Last Time,” knowing it wasn’t a question if he’d slip up again, but when. Justin knew better than anyone that he would never be rid of his demons for good.

Earle married Jenn Marie Maynard in October of 2013, and appeared to be doing well again. But in 2016 he ended up in rehab once more. In between he launched a trilogy of records, starting with Single Mothers (2014) and Absent Fathers (2015) on new label Vagrant Records, and later Kids in the Street in 2017 on New West, where he also released his last record, 2019’s The Saint of Lost Causes. By this time Justin Townes Earle was no longer the hot hand in roots music. Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Tyler Childers were the toast of independent country and Americana, even though each of these later career albums from Justin had their moments.

The birth of his daughter Etta in June of 2017 brought another round of hope for redemption for Justin, but the story of an incident on his bus in Cleveland at the Beachland Ballroom in May of 2018, and a clearly off-the-wagon performance at the Paste Studios in New York that same month was shortly followed by the news of the cancellation of an Australian tour for that summer. As some have pointed out, a few videos of Justin Townes Earle performing shirtless earlier this year and calling for alcohol from the stage raised the concerns of many once again.

None of us know how Justin Townes Earle died at this moment, and it’s unfair to speculate. But we all think we know. Like Townes Van Zandt, Hank Williams, and so many others before him, Justin Townes Earle died of the Lovesick Blues, no matter the real cause. His sins and shortcomings are as inexcusable as anyone’s. But the expectations put on him from famous names assigned at birth were always unfair, even if he in many ways exceeded them while dealing with struggles more real than most, and perhaps, eventually, insurmountable.

Looking back now, the greatest sin of the Dallas Observer prediction in 2011 is they had the audacity to say what we were all so worried about. With the blood of Earle, the name of Townes, and the upbringing of Justin, the odds were never in Justin Townes Earle’s favor. The fact that he persevered as long as he did, and left such an output of lasting music is a testament to his talent and perseverance, and how lucky the roots music world should feel to have enjoyed his gifts for as long as we did.

Now Justin Townes Earle’s struggles, his see-saws between addiction and sobriety, and his constant wrestling with demons is over—with his music enduring on as an everlasting travelogue of his troubled journey as a son of music for the living to reflect on, and learn from.

UPDATE: Police Say Justin Townes Earle Died of Probable Overdose

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