In 2012, Justin Townes Earle was ideally set. His fourth album, Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, marked another creative surge for a songwriter who was fast gaining traction as one of the most distinctive American voices out there. Then things started to go awry.
“The last two years have been a roller-coaster,” he says. “I had a nasty break-up with somebody who turned out to be a sociopath. I was thirty-one years old with a long string of failed relationships and I was really down. The only thing going for me was my career. But I wasn’t working because I had trouble with my old record company. But an amazing thing happened when I met my wife. My whole life changed from that very moment.”
The result of Earle’s new-found surety is the album Single Mothers, a masterful blend of country, white gospel and rolling R&B, played with an economy that posits his fabulously emotive baritone front and centre. The record also serves as a tribute to the other influential woman in his life, mum Carol-Ann Hunter: “She raised me and did what a man should’ve done. She was a roadie and drove a truck, because it was the best money she could make. My mom worked her ass off. What I am today is way more because of her than my father.”
His father, of course, is fêted songwriter Steve Earle, who left Carol-Ann when Justin was two years old. Being the product of a Nashville legend and a broken home, allied to a self-destructive personality, made for a turbulent early life. Justin was using heroin at the age of 12. The remainder of his teens was marked by petty crime, drinking and serial drug use. By his early 20s he’d OD’d several times.
Unsurprisingly, it was music that offered a respite. Earle adored Springsteen and The Replacements. But it was Nirvana’s unplugged version of Leadbelly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night that proved an epiphany: “Suddenly it all made sense to me. Everybody was taking things from the generation that had gone before. So I threw away my electric guitar and bought myself an acoustic one.” His switch to country music and set the template for 2008’s ironically titled debut The Good Life.
Earle has been free of hard drugs for some time now, and sober since 2010. Not that Single Mothers is the work of a man who’s entirely free of struggle. “I’ve seen a lot of people die around me,” he says. “A lot of my life has been complicated and hard and fucked-up, so it’s going to take a while to weed all that out. Touring, writing and making records are all hard, but I’m definitely a lot more relaxed as a songwriter. It’s the only thing I was ever good at.”
Single Mothers is out now on Vagrant.