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Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009

Justin Townes Earle’s Solitary Americana

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Before heading to Milwaukee for this weekend's WMSE Backyard BBQ concert, Justin Townes Earle enjoyed a rare moment off the road, relaxing in an apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side that he and his fiancée moved into earlier this year. For Earle, a 27-year-old folk singer/songwriter who had been living and working in West Nashville, Tenn., New York City's sights and sounds are just what he's been searching for.

"I wanted more influence than what my hometown could offer," he says, adding, "Southern men have a long history of coming to New York City and doing very well for themselves."

Start with Earle's dad, Steve, who lives over on the "other side" in Greenwich Village with the younger Earle's stepmom, alt country singer Allison Moorer (whose sister is country musician Shelby Lynne). Steve Earle named the younger Justin after good friend and fellow musician Townes Van Zandt. Music courses throughout this family's lineage, and, in Earle's hands, the music takes on a "retro vibe" reminiscent of the genre's pioneers.

Earle's influences run from bluesman Lead Belly and Beat Generation maverick Jack Kerouac to The Replacements' Paul Westerberg and grunge icon Kurt Cobain. The musical styles are intermixed, his original songs sounding like they've been written by Hank Williams or Merle Haggard.

"I always refer to my music as an experiment in Southern American music," he explains. His third release, 2009's Midnight at the Movies, touches on a range of styles spanning country blues and rollicking honky-tonk to plaintive ballads and finger-picking rock. Earle covers Westerberg's "Can't Hardly Wait," and explains it this way: "If you listen to The Replacements, you will hear Carl Perkins."

It's easy to see how Earle's style journeys to and from many places, especially when you consider that Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk play a role in his sound as much as George Jones and Johnny Paycheck. "I'm even man enough to admit that I like the George Michael Faith record," Earle says. "That is one of the coolest acoustic guitar sounds of the '80s."

Though he's on the younger end of his famous family, Earle is very much an old soul, writing and singing as if he's lived life well beyond his 27 years. He notes that his three releases were based in part on older influences.

"I think I made Yuma with Woody Guthrie in mind. And then I made The Good Life with Buck Owens in mind."

When it came to Midnight at the Movies, Earle jumped a few decades ahead. "I had an arrogant thought: 'What would Randy Newman do if he was 26 years old and knew what we know now?'"

Over the course of his three releases, Earle's songwriting has evolved as well as the music. He no longer collaborates with others, all the more impressive given the rich diversity of songwriting on Movies.

"My songwriting is very private," Earle says. "I'm not a desk writer. I'm a cocktail napkin writer to the extreme."

Earle doesn't use a guitar when composing either, only for playing his compositions. He insists on keeping the two separate.

Accompanying Earle at his performance at WMSE's Backyard BBQ concert this weekend is band mate Cory Younts, who handles mandolin, banjo, harmonica and "high tenor" while Earle sticks to his low-key, old-style country vocals and finger picking his acoustic guitar. And as young as Earle is in years, his approach to the music and performance is, in some ways, timeless.

"We like to wear suits, we slick our hair back and we interact with the audience, rather than stare at our shoes," Earle says. "We're in the Grand Ole Opry tradition of treating the audience as our friend."

Justin Townes Earle performs at the WMSE Backyard BBQ concert at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 22, at Cathedral Square Park. For more information, visit www.wmse.org