If there’s one thing Justin Townes Earle hates in this world, it’s a happy song. He hasn’t written one to date, and he gets upset when he hears one on the radio.
“Like ‘Walking on Sunshine’ and shit like that does not make me happy; it makes me angry. I think that the average person, we lose more than we win,” Earle says.
Like a man who drinks his coffee black, Earle, a country-inflected singer-songwriter, has a taste for the dark and bitter and sees most everything else as watered down. As his press agent connects him for a phone interview, Lady Antebellum’s country-radio smash hit “Bartender” plays as the hold music, and he’s hard-pressed to identify it. He comes from Nashville, but, needless to say, he’s disenchanted with the Music City juggernaut.
“Yeah, I heard that,” Earle says when we bring up the hold song. “I was wondering who the fuck that was.”
The son of roots-rocker Steve Earle, who named him after legendary songwriter Townes Van Zandt, Justin Townes Earle has a fine country pedigree, and his latest album Single Mothers sits at the opposite end of the sunshine spectrum from Lady Antebellum. Straddling alt-country, rockabilly, and old-time country and western, he clearly would rather sing about aching loneliness and broken relationships than about pickup trucks and light beer.
Since his 2007 solo debut Yuma, each Earle album has featured at least one moment of absolute crushing melancholy. On “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven For This,” from his breakout 2009 album Midnight at the Movies, he sings over piano and creaking upright bass, “You won’t curse or scream, no, nothing that obscene / You’ll just tell yourself you never loved me anyway.” Damn.
On Single Mothers, it’s hard to pick the single most gut-wrenching moment. They come without warning, like on the lilting but world-weary “Wanna Be a Stranger” when he sings, “I asked my baby did she love me / She said ‘Ask me later’ / Didn’t even say goodbye, now / I just wanna meet a stranger.”
The album and its title track are partly an homage to Earle’s mother, Carol Ann Hunter Earle, who raised him alone. In Earle’s own words, his mother was always “working her ass off just to keep a roof over our heads,” and that meant he was often left alone as a young man.
“So I had nobody around, and I thought that was great as a kid and I learned to be brave, but I was lonely. I was lonely for a long time. I was lonely until I got married, basically, and I’ve been married for a year,” Earle says.
Earle wrote the songs on Single Mothers before the wedding, though, and the loneliness comes through loud and clear. A companion album, Absent Fathers, is due out in January, and while it’s safe to assume it won’t be a ray of sunshine, Earle says you’ll be able to hear the difference.
“The second record Absent Fathers is going to have a bit more hope, and it does look to the end of the tunnel,” Earle says. “It’s still a pinhole, the light at the end of the tunnel, but I don’t think anybody’s all the way out there. You would be the Messiah.”
Earle says he still has plenty of hard times to draw on for inspiration, and some of his songs are composites from other people’s lives. Single Mothers‘ “My Baby Drives” comes from a phrase he overheard from “a big ol’ kinda white-trashy guy” at the DMV one day, and “White Gardenias” started with a snippet from a documentary he watched about Billie Holiday. The jazz singer once famously placed a white gardenia in her hair before a show, unaware that the flower had a hatpin in it and that she was pressing the pin into the side of her head. “Maybe she went back to Baltimore / Bet she packed her bags the night before / Took a taxi down to Lex and 44th / Caught the first train to Baltimore / ‘Cause long ago she left her heart there / ‘Cause she could not stop the bleeding,” Earle sings over a weeping steel guitar line.
“I didn’t write that song for the Billie Holliday that everybody knows,” Earle says. “I wrote that song for the little girl from Baltimore that never had a chance.”
Even in good times, Earle says he isn’t worried that the old well of songwriter’s sorrow will run dry. He has spoken openly for years about his struggles with drug addiction and alcoholism, including a relapse that landed him in rehab in 2010, but even now, sober and married, he says he’s got plenty of material. “I have way more years of everything being fucked up than I do of one year that has been good, so I have a backlog of stuff,” he says.
As for his penchant for sad songs, Earle suspects he’s not alone.
“I think that most people don’t notice it, but we all have this thing for sad songs,” he says. “You know, I love listening to George Jones because when I listen to him, I know that he feels worse than I do. That’s the thing about it is we draw comfort in so many ways from the music that we love, and coming from the country tradition there’s not a lot of happy songs. But I do, from that tradition, write upbeat unhappy songs sometimes.”
A fine example: “Time Shows Fools,” the peppiest track on Single Mothers, which features a bar-rock bass line and a punchy little guitar solo. But the lyrics are classic Earle:
“Wish I could say that I found some way to sleep at night / Wish I could lie, but my weary eyes tell otherwise / And I know when it comes to matters of the heart / That time shows all fools what they really are.”