Justin Townes Earle has now announced the forthcoming release of his seventh record, Absent Fathers, set to hit shelves just months after his 2014 release Single Mothers. The 32-year-old is married now, and the companion records reflect the span of his life that bridged being a bachelor to exchanging vows.
Earle spoke to Weld about that divide and about the evolution of Nashville before his upcoming stop at WorkPlay, a Theatre show that comes one day before an appearance at The Ryman in his hometown.
Weld: Was Single Mothers and Absent Fathers always meant to be a two LP project, or did you just have so much material left over after the first one that you decided to do the second?
Justin Townes Earle: It was written, originally, to be a double record; both sets of songs were written at different times — one before I got married and the other after I got married. So, I was going to put them out as a double record, but thought better of it. Lucinda Williams just made a great one, but I don’t fancy myself anywhere near a Lucinda Williams [Laughs].
Weld: So the Absent Fathers portion is the material that you wrote after you were married?
JTE: Yeah. It’s not like it’s happy or anything. But I think the first record has less hope behind it and the second record sees a light at the end of the tunnel that’s still no bigger than a pinhole.
Weld: You were part of the Dead Man’s Town compilation this year — how did that happen?
JTE: That was great. I had a good time looking for a new way to do that song [“Glory Days”]. I always thought that it had such sad lyrics. It’s [expletive] miserable sounding lyrics. I just wanted to slow it down and absolutely showcase the lyrics, because they’re devastating.
Weld: Why did you choose “Glory Days”?
JTE: At first, I thought it was just a straightforward Springsteen tribute. I didn’t hear all the details, so I was trying to get “Thunder Road”. When I found out that it was based on Born in the U.S.A., it was between that and “Working on the Highway”. I had a harder time picturing a way for me to do “Working on the Highway”, but I had this idea, automatically, for “Glory Days”. I loved that entire record, so it wouldn’t have really made a difference to me what I got.
Weld: I know that you’re very passionate about the changing landscape of Nashville — did you think the city was represented fairly on the Sonic Highways documentary recently?
JTE: I don’t think this town has been represented properly in a really, really, really long time. Tom T. Hall may still be around and may be attending a lot of things, but I guarantee you that he hates every [expletive] minute of all of this [expletive]. The landscape of Nashville has — and I stand by this — if I had been in a coma, there’s no way in hell that I would recognize where I was. It would take a while to look around and figure it out because it’s — when I was a kid, the tallest building in this town was the [expletive] L and C Tower. By far.
It’s definitely a strange thing. This is happening everywhere; it’s not like it’s a special thing to Nashville. I guess it just doesn’t hit as hard until it happens when it happens in a place where a lot of your childhood memories were wrapped around.
Weld: How can it be improved?
JTE: I think if we could get our image back as this bastion of great songwriting and talent instead of this bastion of meaningless pop music that will not live out the ages — nobody will remember this [expletive]. Nobody. That’s not what Nashville was. Nashville made some of the most memorable moments in music history and now it’s just, “Flash! Bang!” You know?
Weld: You’ve begun doing some producing — you worked on a Wanda Jackson record just a few years ago. Is it something you’d like to continue, working on other people’s music?
JTE: Absolutely. I didn’t know how it was going to be for me, whether I was going to be a good producer…and I still haven’t produced enough by myself that I feel like I’m a good producer…I’ve only done one record and then my own. It’s easy to do your own records, as long as you have a clear vision of what you’re doing. There’s an artist that I want to produce a record on very badly. He’s from New Zealand, and he lives in Australia — his name is Marlon Williams. The first time in really long time in my life that I’ve looked at a kid that’s 22 years old and just went, “Whoa.”
He’s just come on, not fully formed, but closer than anyone else I’ve ever seen. Still finding his voice, for sure, but I’d love to get in and help him do that because he’s a great songwriter and an amazing singer and a [expletive] guitar player. That’s the whole package.
Weld: What will your band look like in Birmingham?
JTE: I’ll have a drummer and bass player and a guitar player who also plays pedal steel. I’m very lucky to have my band — they’re actually players that I’ve wanted to play with for over 12 years or more. Paul Niehaus, formerly of Calexico, is my guitar and steel player. My rhythm section, Mark Hedman and Matt Pence, are from the band Centro-Matic.
I feel very lucky to have that band and out on the road working for me and to be worthy to work for.
Weld: Any chance that you’ll throw a cover in this set? “Glory Days” or that “Dreams” cover you recently did for radio?
JTE: There’s a good chance. I was actually thinking about working up a few more songs for this run. We’ll see what happens.
Weld: What are you listening to right now that I should be listening to?
JTE: Right now, I’ve actually not been listening to any music and I’ve been stuffing myself with information. I think listening to the way other forms of writing and reading other forms of writing and writing other forms of writing is a break that is very necessary. Right now, I’ve been listening to the Shelby Foote The Civil War documentary. I’ve read it twice, which, it’s two books of 3,000 pages or more. But I’ve been listening to it on audiobook over and over and over again. I’m only on the beginning of the second book right now, but I’ve been listening to it for a month or more. Luckily my wife is a patient woman.
And I’ve been listening to that Lucinda record for a couple of months now because I got it months before it came out.
Weld: How is married life treating you?
JTE: I feel that I am one of the luckiest sons of bitches on the face of the earth. My wife is an amazing woman. She’s loving and caring, but she also sees what I do as a job, not a hobby. She realizes that I have to have my time to sit down and write. And she realizes that right now, work is very important. So I don’t get bitched at for long days of writing. We have fun. If they say the first year is the toughest, then we’re going to be just [expletive] fine.
Justin Townes Earle comes to the WorkPlay Theatre on Wednesday, November 19. Cory Branan will open. The show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20.