“It’s as Hard as You Make It”: The Legacy of Justin Townes Earle

Cole Louison
·10 mins read

On August 6, 2009, the Big Surprise Tour stopped at the Beacon Theatre in New York City.

Justin Townes Earle opened the show.

His job was to play while people were still coming in and sitting down, after the doors opened and before the first band. He was fourth on the bill that night, and on the posters out front his name was the smallest and the last, under the Felice Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Gillian Welch—all Americana acts in ascending order of popularity. Gillian Welch was by then famous, half of a genre-breaking, Grammy-winning duo.

Justin blew them all away.

He walked out in a plaid jacket, matching slacks, and two-tone buck shoes. His guitar was smaller, and angled at almost 90 degrees to his body, with a capo clamped halfway down the neck. He started playing, and that was it. For 20 minutes, Justin sang and screamed and squawked and squealed. He howled and moaned and, at the end of a train song, let out a long, slow hiss. He yawped. He gritted his teeth and popped his Ps and Bs, so spit sprayed up toward the lights. And he moved when he played, rocking and jerking and nodding and stomping, clomping his heel and scuffing his sole. He filled up with air while he built the end-song with plucked high notes, and he blew out the last words, shaking, dripping, and puckering, then rolled his fingers down the strings and stepped back from the mic.

People kept asking who he was.

He was 27 then. And when he died in late August, at 38, alone, in an apartment, no one was shocked. This didn’t make it any easier for fans of both his music and of music in general, but the fact is Justin led a hard, raucous, sometimes legitimately dangerous life, and he did it intentionally.

“It’s as hard as you make it,” he once told me.

That life, so sad and grueling that it ultimately killed him, was also essential to the music Justin loved, played, and, so thankfully, left behind. I knew him only in passing, but I saw his shows and listened to and loved his music a lot. Splitting the person from the music turned out not to be so easy.

But Justin was never easy.

While the Nashville coroner’s office will likely confirm initial police reports of a “probable overdose,” in the coming weeks, anyone reading this article knows it wasn’t just drugs. Justin was born into a world of music, then hardship (fostered mostly by him). His dad was Steve Earle, a country rocker who went to jail for drugs, married seven times, and left Carole Ann Hunter with Justin when he was two. Mr. Earle’s hero, friend, and sometimes housemate was the great, troubled American songwriter Townes Van Zandt, Justin’s namesake.

(Justin had TOWNES tatted under his neck, and as a kid attended Townes’ funeral, where both his Dad and Lyle Lovett performed. Like Prince or even MJ, fans don’t talk about Townes’ end, slow and excruciating, at 52.)

Despite his connections in the country music capital of the world, Justin looked to the past for inspiration. Oddly, it was his father who brought about his son’s big musical revelation. As a kid, he loved punk bands, and in 1994, one such band released a very unpunk album called Nirvana Unplugged. Justin was staying with his dad, replaying “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” the haunting ender to the show, to Nirvana, and to the band’s doomed frontman.

Mr. Earle walked into the room and handed Justin a Ledbelly record.

“Who is this,” asked Justin.

“It’s the guy who wrote that song,” said Mr. Earle

“Kurt Cobain wrote it.”

“No.”

Huddie William Ledbetter was born to sharecroppers around 1888 near what’s now Shreveport, LA, and traveled the predominantly black south as a teenager, playing a guitar or accordion at bars, dances, and parties. In 1933 a historian named Alan Lomax visited a Louisiana prison, where Ledbetter was both performing doing time for “assault with intent to murder.” Lomax eventually recorded him doing a train song that became a set piece for Justin almost a century later. That song’s refrain:

Let the Midnight Special, shine the light on me,

Let the Midnight Special, shine the ever-loving light on me.

Justin said Leadbelly is how he found the blues, and “realized everything else is bullshit.”

It’s also how he found the guys who influenced his playing, blues and blues-rooted players like Son House, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Mississippi John Hurt.

That night at the Beacon, Justin played without a pick. It took a song or two to notice, but then it made sense. Guitars don’t sound like that, normally, and even from our seats we could see there was nothing normal about Justin’s playing. While his left hand fingered (very hard) chords, his right hand—marked with what looked like an X—moved in patterned blur, swiping the strings with a flicking motion.

“It sounds like three guitars,” said another reporter.

Other things were going on, things we were too far away to see. But we would soon enough. Because it turned out Justin had just moved to New York. Things had changed in recent years, and rather a lot. He’d gotten sober after his fifth OD, released three full-length albums, and signed with Bloodshot Records—the Midwestern indie powerhouse that launched the Old 97s and Lydia Loveless.

He was also on Twitter. The following Wednesday came a post:

“I’ll go on around 10.”

He didn’t say where, but it was the 11th Street Bar, on the block where the East Village turns into Alphabet City. That night, as showgoers filed in, he stood on the tiny cement patio out front. You could see him practically from Avenue A. He was 6’6" and rail thin, with a parted brushcut. He wore pressed jeans that ended well over new white bucks. His workshirt was open, a tattoo on his collarbone, and the X on his hand turned out to be two sledgehammers. His teeth were tan and his face somewhat pitted.

Someone gave him a light and he nodded.

“Thank you,” he grinned. “Watch it, though—I used to smoke crack. I’ll steal your lighter like a motherfucker.”

Half an hour later, he walked in, slung on his guitar, and with little adieu launched into “Bad Gasoline” by Lightnin’ Hopkins.

It was the best solo show I’ve ever seen.

It was also, of the 25ish times I saw him, the most memorable. Probably because it was the first time I saw him play up-close. It turned out the swatting motion we’d seen at the Beacon was actually two-part: His hand would come down, and he’d knock the fat top string with his thumb, and make a pincher to pluck the top two strings, then flick the other three fingers down, a rough scuffing sound. The whole thing, which took maybe a second, produced a contrasted and two-part rhythm: One part rattling and percussive, riffy and messy—and one bass-y, an echoing low click, a ‘tock’ like that of a grandfather clock.

Justin sure did rock that night. By then he was reportedly touring 200 days a year, and recording. But with every homecoming came a Wednesday show, and there he’d be, rocking the packed room. His songs were low, high, sad, sweet, and, one showgoer observed, nasty.

(Fun fact: The single barfight I ever saw was in that room, before the show.)

One night, during a slow number, a sudden pounding came through the wall. Justin finished the song and took a sip of water.

“Whatever malcontent marauder is making that infernal racket needs to SHUT THE FUCK UP,” he hollered. “We’re workin.’”

Another night, people filed in, sat on the sparse benches, and remarked on the room’s vibe. Things looked the same, but for a portrait taped high on the back wall.

Justin walked in, slung on his guitar, and spoke into the mic.

“We have lost a brother,” he said, referring to Chris Feinstein, an 11th Street local and the bass player for Ryan Adams, who’d died at 42. Justin opened a devastatingly perfect show with Can’t Hardly Wait by the Replacements, with the refrain, “Hurry up, hurry up, ain’t you had enough of this stuff?” He’d dedicate the song to Feinstein for years, long after he’d left 11th Street.

Next came Harlem River Blues. A urban folk record that echoed the country-to-New York City flights of Dylan and (Justin preferred) Woody Guthrie. Reviews and sales were good. So were interviews. Shows were bigger and for the first time he appeared with a small band, a bass and fiddle. Alabama’s Billy Reid designed his suits for an upcoming tour, and he wore one on Letterman. It was a dazzling performance of the title track; Paul took an organ solo and Dave said: “Come back often.”

"Slippin’ and Slidin’" was the album’s big single.

The lyrics feel inspired by Little Richard’s track of the same name, but Richard’s song is about a girl. Justin’s song is about addiction. It goes:

I should have learned better, old enough to know,

Slippin and slidin’ feeling low.

It’s a setback at best, ashamed for sure,

Slippin and slidin', feeling low.

Richard ends the song on a learned note:

Slippin’ and a-slidin', peepin’ and a-hidin’ . . . I won’t be your fool no more.

Justin gives no such solace, and the song ends where it begins:

Slippin’ and a-slidin', peepin’ and a-hidin’. . . slippin’ and slidin,’ feeling low.

Fans know what happened next. The album dropped on September 14, 2010, three days before Justin was jailed in Indianapolis, then left the tour to enter treatment for the 13th time. He was 29.

A year later he played a solo show at a New Jersey library, and yo-yo’ed his way back to Carnegie Hall eight months after that, Mom in the audience, up from Nashville. He forgot the lyrics to four of his songs and kept apologizing. With 2012 came Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, a soul record, and his last with Bloodshot. The album cycle included another stop on Letterman and shows in both Australia and Sweden

In 2013 he married Jenn Marie and in 2017 he moved to Oregon and became a father. He’d sign with two more labels and release four more albums that sounded nothing like him live, although live shows had changed too. They cost more and delivered less. Sometimes he’d have a band, sometimes a lone guy on a synthesizer, singing back-up.

His last shows were solo.

In March, the week before Covid hit America, he announced a new tour. Justin played one date, in Delaware, opening (yes, opening) for someone named Brian Fallon. He played five songs, three with no shirt. Any rumors of sobriety were quashed then, but Justin remained a gentleman. After asking for a drink, he stopped mid-song.

“I’m so sorry,” he said pointing. “I didn't realize there was a child here.”

“It’s OK,” said an older man in the audience.

His final number was Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving,” a track off his first album that he wrote as a teenager. It goes:

I know right now baby,

It might seem wrong,

If you don’t wake up in the morning,

Thanking your heavens I’m gone.

Justin finished the song, thanked everyone, and walked offstage, his guitar on the floor.

Cole Louison is the author of the books The Impossible, Burning Men, and the forthcoming Bigger Short.

Originally Appeared on GQ