Someone like Justin Townes Earle must get asked daily to define the current state of contemporary American roots music. But as he’s the first to admit, he doesn’t have a good answer.
"I really have absolutely no fucking idea what 'Americana' means today," says the 35-year-old in a low-slung Tennessee drawl. "In 1998, it seemed it meant you probably had a guy that played a Telecaster in the band, and you sold less than 10,000 copies of every record you made, and you had stickers all over your guitar."
Whether he likes it or not, though, Earle—who’s been in Portland the last month for a string of intimate shows at Doug Fir Lounge that wrap up this week—is the arbiter of all modern concepts of “Americana.” That’s what happens when you’re born to alt-country picker Steve Earle and named for country-folk master of melancholy Townes Van Zandt. Given his pedigree, his career has unfolded the way you might imagine, playing finger-picked ballads alongside hard-driving, steel pedal-laced tales of blues and trouble, made sadly more real by the struggles with addiction he appears to have inherited from his father.
But even while disparaging some Portlander unlucky enough to tell him the Decemberists are Americana, Earle is actually a thoughtful, slow-moving kind of person. He has the poetic way of speaking that only Southerners do, in a series of learned aphorisms told as truth. “I’m from the South,” he says at one point. “‘Americana’ is bad artwork painted on barn wood.” He takes long pauses before he speaks, even after the question, “How are you?” After thinking it through fully and arriving at the proper response, he answers: “Fine. Just fine.”
It’s hard to tell whether this is the new Earle or the old Earle, minus all the tattooed, put-on street smarts and the labels too easily applied to him—like, ahem, Americana. Either way, his new companion set of albums, Single Mothers and Absent Fathers, shows a reflective, seasoned songwriter who’s arrived at the other side of his youthful anger, settling into stability and determining what’s important to him.
“There’s a closing of a chapter of life,” Earle says. “Not that there’s any new great understanding as to what happened before, but sometimes it’s time to just move on. I got married and I have a kid on the way.”
In a pop-country landscape dominated by faux-vintage poseurs like Nathaniel Rateliff, Earle's recent work grapples earnestly with the sometimes disappointing realities of growing up, starting a family and being unable to change one's past for the better—and the caliber of the music itself shows, with every note, how hard Earle has worked to get where he is. For some people, the drive to finally get to where you want to be, in both the personal and professional sense, is sparked by a single, monumental event. But for Earle, the process happened gradually.
“It was just the passing of time,” he says. “Not that I’ve grown up, but I’m grown up enough now to realize what my great-grandmother meant when she looked at me and said, ‘Honey, is it gonna matter in a thousand years?’”
SEE IT: Justin Townes Earle plays Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., with Courtney Marie Andrews, on Wednesday, March 29. 8 pm. $14 advance, $16 day of show. 21+.