By Mike Dunn
CALGARY – Throughout his decade-long recording career, singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle has defied expectation by sticking to a mainly straightforward amalgam of classic roots styles – never aiming for the pretentious or chasing that ”big leap” to the mainstream. His records have always sounded spare and unflinching, a really live-off-the-floor feeling of a songwriter with exactly the right pieces to fill out a song on any given cut.
There’s long been a natural bluesy vibe in Earle’s work, though not the wanky blues hammer bullshit that so many artists trot out. Earle cuts closer to the bone, deeper than a lot of artists dig, relying on the elemental groove and rhythm of the style instead of the flashy instrumental gymnastics of modern blues. In hearing Earle play a blues number, like “15-25” from his most recent album Kids In The Street, it’s easy to imagine what Hank Williams might have sounded like had he lived long enough to record at Chess in Chicago in the mid-50s. Likewise in his ability to deftly run through a bluegrass barroom weeper like “Faded Valentine”, or the mix of hop-along folk with western swing on “What’s Goin’ On”, Earle has distilled the classic styles of American folk music down to the essential ingredients.
Helping Earle bring Kids In The Street up was veteran Mike Mogis, perhaps best known for his work with Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, and M. Ward. Mogis’s touch is evident in some of the arrangement choices, adding sonic touches that bring a new edge to Earle’s style, including the gritty textures on “If I Was The Devil” and the solo upright bass workout on “Trouble Is”. In addition, a few interesting choices on the country rock cuts “Maybe A Moment” and “What’s She Crying For” will appeal immediately to fans of Alberta prairie country.
It’s a busy life for artists, especially ones who’ve likely had to answer the same questions over and over again year in and out. New West Records made an admirable and appreciated attempt to connect BeatRoute with Earle, and I waited all evening to see if he’d get back to me. Earle’s a hell of a songwriter, and probably a hell of a guy to those who know him best. It would have been great to have some straight dope from the man himself. Fingers crossed for another time. Perhaps then I’ll get to tell y’all more of what Justin Townes Earle has to say about making records and being on the road from the wizened tenor that hitchhikes from Texas to Tennessee. Right now, all I have is a voicemail greeting that calmly warns, “Don’t waste my time.”
Justin Townes Earle performs Friday, Feb. 16 at Studio Bell during Block Heater.Block Heater, Justin Townes Earle, Kids In The Street, Studio Bell