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Justin Townes Earle forges own name, identity and sound



The shadow of his father, Steve Earle, shades Justin Townes Earle. Like Dad, he's a singer/songwriter who draws on old country/roots music who has battled drug addiction, some of that time as a teenage member of father's band.


As the younger Earle notes on the pedal steel ambler "Mama's Eyes," "I went down the same road as my old man, but I was younger then." It's an amusing, if telling, line that characterizes their often "tumultuous" relationship, while Justin Townes Earle tries to establish a cardinal fact most writers probably miss.

"I am not a product of an asexual science experiment involving songwriter Steve Earle," he said. "I am my father's son, but I'll always be my momma's boy. And whatever kind of man I am today, Carol Ann Earle is responsible."

He's long stopped trying to outrun the heritage of his birth name, saying he's seen too many make fools of themselves in an attempt to separate their identities from their parents. He acknowledged that he and his father share similar roots, but said his dad "likes to go forward" and he likes "to go backward."

Indeed, the younger Earle's 2008 debut, "The Good Life," could have been released a half-century earlier, as beholden as it is to its acoustic country tone. Honky-tonk, Bakersfield country, bluegrass and swing all make appearances with a sound that's as raw and spacious as an unpainted furniture warehouse. Earle followed it this month with "Midnight at the Movies," which covers similar territory, but boasts a warmer, more expansive sound.

"We took more of an atmospheric approach on this. On 'The Good Life,' we stayed pretty constantly true to the traditional country, ragtime or blues format, and on this we don't," he said, crediting the album's increasing sonic sophistication to a maturing creative vision. "I didn't invent this. I want to honor and show where I come from, and I think I finally figured out how to pay tribute to my heroes and the songs I love without trampling all over them."

A Nashville, Tenn., native, Earle recently moved to Manhattan, a place that has always intrigued him, but long seemed a stretch for a country boy like him.

"I'm at a point in my life where watching my friends drink themselves to death in the same bars that I used to drink myself to death in is getting kind of boring," he said. "That's one thing that's really important for writers: They need to keep on reading and keep living. A country boy can go far, but he can only go so far in his old hometown."

While the road has kept Earle away from home for much of the last year, he's enjoyed the experience so far.

"I like how New York works. I'm not a very fast-moving person, but I like to let stuff just go on around me." he said.

Meanwhile, Earle keeps working. He's already finished an EP of songs, tentatively titled "The City Tonight," and has started work on another full-length.

"Some people get in this business to top other people, like it's a competition," he said. "I'm just here to write songs and put out records, and hopefully people will keep liking them." "Chris Parker

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