Words by JJ Sheffer & Photos by Timothy Becker
Justin Townes Earle may have a somewhat sordid past – he’s known for speaking candidly about his demons – and might have a reputation for being unpredictable, even belligerent. But make no mistake; the man is extraordinarily talented and immensely charming.
Earle performed Saturday at Hot August Blues, the 20th annual installment of promoter Brad Selko’s Cockeysville, MD festival. Earle took the stage and played two songs solo before being joined by his band. He opened with “They Killed John Henry,” which he always dedicates to his grandfather, Jack Dublin Earle, followed by “Wanderin’.” He told the crowd at Oregon Ridge Park that when he sits down to write a song, he asks himself an important question: What would Woody Guthrie do?
“This song’s not about Woody,” Earle said, “but I definitely had him in mind.”
This was followed by a series of false starts, where he flubbed the lyrics to “Wanderin’.” The crowd responded encouragingly. His third attempt was flawless, and the smile that spread across his face as he played through the part he’d goofed before would have made even the most hardened heart melt.
Earle’s current band consists of Paul Niehaus on guitar and pedal steel, Vince Ilagan on upright bass, and John Radford on drums. The group has been touring together for some time, and the chemistry among them is a great fit for Earle’s songs. Niehaus, a well-known blues guitarist and session man (Iron & Wine, Yo La Tengo, et al), and also a member of Calexico, was a particularly good fit for the Hot August Blues main stage.
“The problem with country music today,” Earle told the crowd on Saturday, “is somewhere around the 1970s, it started losing its connection to blues. And if you look at the history of the music, you will find that it was a very obscure form of music until Hank Williams introduced the 12-bar blues into it. So if you want country to be good again, you’ve got to just remember…DeFord Bailey played country music, too. So here’s to keeping the blues in the country.” It goes without saying that the Hot August Blues audience appreciated this sentiment.
Perhaps the best quality that someone who plays country music can have is to be a good storyteller. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better musical storyteller today than Earle, but it’s impossible to pigeon-hole what he does exclusively into the genre of country, or even the broader genre of folk.
“I decided after I made my first record that I didn’t want to just play country music for the rest of my life,” Earle said. “There’s just too much to do…and this ain’t country,” he said, and launched into the boogie-laden “Baby’s Got a Bad Idea.”
Earle is a living, breathing encyclopedia of blues, gospel, Americana in nearly any form; his music is informed and influenced by those that came before him, and his reverence for those traditions make his contributions to the American folk music canon something remarkably distinctive.
They Killed John Henry (solo)
Memphis in the Rain
Look the Other Way
One More Night in Brooklyn
Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving
Baby’s Got a Bad Idea
Am I That Lonely Tonight?
I Been Burnin’ Bad Gasoline (solo; Lightnin’ Hopkins cover)
Unfortunately Anna (solo)
Harlem River Blues
Black Eyed Suzy
Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
Down on the Lower East Side
Can’t Hardly Wait (Replacements cover)