Midnight at the Movies
Justin Townes Earle
His is an-all-too familiar story for children of famous musicians: the story of the child—raised by his mother while his father is out touring the country and nursing a serious drug and alcohol problem—who eventually becomes a successful musician in his own right though always in the shadow of his parent. While perusing articles on Justin Townes Earle, you would be hard-pressed to find one that does not mention his parentage. The fact that Earle is the son of country-rock troubadour Steve Earle often reads like the opening lines of a novel, as if to put what is to come next in its proper context. While this is certainly not an invalid approach, it has the potential to rob Earle of any merit of his own accord. While he may not have strayed far from the musical roots of his father, he has proved himself to be fully capable of finding his own soil.
This blossoming is fully evidenced on his sophomore effort Midnight at the Movies. Like its predecessor, The Good Life, Midnight presents Earle as a musician well-versed in the old tradition. He hearkens back to the early days of country music, before it became the slick, commercially driven, and largely heartless machine that it is today. His music fits comfortably among the old standards that can be heard from the jukeboxes in any of the honky-tonk joints that line Nashville’s Broadway Avenue. Whereas his debut album drew obvious inspiration from Charlie Poole and Hank Williams—country music’s venerable grandfathers—Midnight expands its scope, adding elements of bluegrass, rural blues, and ragtime to his already mastered repertoire of Texas shuffles and country ballads. “Dirty Rag,” the album’s lone instrumental track, could easily be mistaken as a track off an old Smithsonian Folkways compilation—if not for its production value.
Despite Earle’s apparent influences, he does not fall victim to simply rehashing the past, a fact that is largely due to his approach to popular music. He is a firm believer in the mantra that nothing is new under the sun. American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch once wrote that, “Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent,” and though it may be applied to film, it serves an apt critique of art in general. Earle readily cites Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt (for whom he is named) as significant influences, but like any good musician working within a well-worn tradition, he manages to give it fresh perspective. Earle has often described this perspective as country through a punk rock lens, and while this might at first seem like a peculiar self-assessment, especially considering that his songs are largely devoid of drums or any electric instrumentation, Earle is referring to an attitude rather than a particular sound. He does things his own way, which would have put him right at home during the outlaw country days of Willie and Waylon (or his father, for that matter).
If The Good Life revealed Earle as a young musician with potential, Midnight is the realization of that potential and then some. He is not simply some hipster kid posturing as a Grand Ole Opry legend; he is a genuine artist, as is evidenced by the sincerity of his songwriting. “Mama’s Eyes” is a heartfelt homage to his mother: “I am my father’s son / I’ve never known when to shut up.” Yet despite his admitted paternal inheritance, he is ultimately his mother’s boy: “I’ve got my mama’s eyes / her long thin frame and her smile / and I still see wrong from right / ‘cuz I’ve got my mama’s eyes.” If given the radio play it deserves, “Mama’s Eyes,” could easily be a country classic. Earle digs deeper into his family history in “They Killed John Henry,” a finger picked blues number that explores the legends of his grandfather and American icon John Henry in equal measure. The simple personal confessions of “Someday I’ll Forgiven This” and “Here We Go Again” bring to mind Ryan Adams or Willie Nelson at their most contemplative and are among the album’s finest moments.
Mama's Eyes from Midnight at the Movies by Justin Townes Earle is used with permission.
A surprising bluegrass reworking of The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait,” proves the point that a good song can transcend genres. Whether a conscious decision or not, this cover of a punk classic serves as Earle’s public announcement of whom he is artistically. Excluding some unforeseen and wholly disappointing crossover into modern commercial country, Earle is and forever will remain a musical outsider—not quite country, not quite folk, not quite rock—and something tells me he’s fine with that. At the end of the day, Earle is simply an American songwriter and a good one at that. On Midnight,he does not seem overly concerned with eliminating references to his father, but is instead coming to terms with him: a man whose influence is undeniable, yet somewhat regrettable. He admits to walking down the same road of substance abuse as his father, but even at 27, he can look back with his mama's eyes and say, “I was younger then.”