In the mid-1990s, after a short stint in jail on drug possession and gun charges, country maverick Steve Earle was starting to emerge from years of drug abuse. He got clean, recorded his first albums since 1990, and eventually moved to New York and became an outspoken political activist. About the same time that he was heading off on the straight and narrow, though, his oldest son back in Tennessee, from the first of his seven marriages, was getting his first taste of what would turn into a nearly decade-long addiction.
"I grew up in Nashville with my mother," says Justin Townes Earle, who's now a singer and songwriter himself. "My contact with my dad was minimal, at best. He lived in Los Angeles for a while, and his problems with drugs and alcohol didn't help.... I had an extremely bad drug habit for years. I started taking hard street drugs when I was 13 years old. By the time I was in my 20s, I didn't care about anything except getting high."
Earle, now 26, left home when he was 15 and ended up in Johnson City for a couple of years, writing songs, performing sporadically, and taking a lot of drugs with the songwriter Scotty Melton. "We were a complete and total wreck," he says. "We liked to think we were interested in music, but we were more interested in how fucked up we could get."
During his late teens, Earle toured with his father's band, playing guitar and keyboards. But his poor performances, affected by the drugs, and his father's first-hand knowledge of how addiction works, led to an abrupt ending of that partnership. Steve Earle eventually kicked him out of the band.
"He responded like a recovering drug addict does," he says. "He stayed away. He knows better. Smart recovering drug addicts know better than to try to stop their kids from doing drugs if they're addicted. It's what drug addicts do. You have to let them do it until they crash and burn."
The dismissal prompted the younger Earle to re-evaluate his life and, eventually, to pursue a serious career on his own. "I got clean when I was 22, and I'm still clean," he says. "I took some time off, didn't play out but kept playing and writing songs. Then I started touring again. I recorded an EP called Yuma in 2006 and sold 3,000 copies of it out of the trunk of my car, with no distribution, no publicity, no help at all."
His name helped. But being the son of a famous performer isn't necessarily the best way to start a career in the entertainment business. "It helps you get your foot in the door," Earle says. "But you better make sure you get the rest of your body through. They'll pay attention to you fast but they'll also put you under a microscope."
Last year, during a stop in Chicago supporting Yuma, Earle stayed with Rob Miller, the co-owner of Bloodshot Records. Miller offered him a deal, and Earle's first real record, The Good Life, was released this spring. His father's influence is apparent, especially on the forlorn ballads "Far Away in Another Town" and "Who Am I to Say," but The Good Life is mostly a survey of early country music, from the bluesy "Lone Pine Hill" and the Jimmie Rodgers-style "Ain't Glad I'm Leaving" to a collection of hardcore honky-tonk tracks. A handful of them—"South Georgia Sugar Babe," "Hard Livin,'" and "Turn Out My Lights"—date back to his adolescence. They're all old-fashioned enough to have earned Earle an appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in May.
"I can't help the fact that my songs sound old," he says. "It takes a lot of effort for me to write a modern rock ‘n' roll song.... I had an inner-city youth. I was inner-city white trash, so I listened to a lot of hip-hop and heavy metal. Then, when I was about 11, Nirvana's Nevermind came out. And then the tide really turned for me when they did that Unplugged record that had a Leadbelly song, ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night,' on it. That's when my investigation into earlier music started and shot me back to Woody Guthrie and then forward to Bob Dylan."
Even during his darkest years, Earle was digging through old country and blues records and writing songs. He was scheduled to record an album when he was 18, but his bad habits got in the way. "It was a godsend, really," he says. "I'm lucky I didn't make that record. It wouldn't have been the record that The Good Life is."
photo by Joshua Black Wilkins